3 Ages of Mining Differently

The mining industry has been part of a grander evolution of business. Since the turn of the 20th century, three ages or periods distinguish major paradigm shifts in business thinking.

The mining industry has been part of a grander evolution of business. Since the turn of the 20th century, three ages or periods distinguish major paradigm shifts in business thinking.

The Y-axis of the Life-cycle diagram is labelled “Utility of the Paradigm” for a good reason. A subsequent age doesn’t start from zero but is elevated by the previous age. That means we carry forward the valuable lessons and practices and adapt them to the next emerging Age. And just as important, we let go of the myths and fallacies of the old Age. Three myths dominate current mining thinking:

Myth 1: The best way to run a mine is to focus on cost certainty and manage people as if they are parts of a machine.

Myth 2: Mine operations should be optimised from start to finish to produce the best results.

Myth 3: We can achieve social licence acceptance and safety aims within our current management paradigm by pursuing effective culture change.

The Industrial Age

The Industrial Age growth mindset in the early 20th century was heavily influenced by Max Weber, Henri Fayol, and Frederick Taylor. Together the three pioneers formed what is known as Classical Management Theory. Weber’s Bureaucracy doctrine, Fayol’s 14 management principles, and Taylor’s Scientific Management principles of productivity instilled order, structure, and discipline. The paradigm was viewing business as a machine. However, it couldn’t last forever when humans revolted over their poor treatment as mere cogs in a machine. A crisis point depicted as a “yellow bubble” was eventually reached resulting in declines in capital, labour, and material productivity.

The Information Age

The Information Age saw the rise of Systems thinking and Human Factors boosted by computerized information technology. A popular solution called Business Process Reengineering succinctly captures the shift to an engineering paradigm. People are no longer cogs. People, process, and technology are parts of a system: The whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Industries like mining rally behind “Faster, better, cheaper.” 
The relentless pursuit of optimized efficiency has yielded unintended negatives consequences. Misuse of promising Information Age digital tools such as ERP have made operations extremely complicated and frustrating for local operations managers. Implementation of new technologies has not been easy. Change Management programs have focused on reducing employee resistance and forcing culture change. The change paradigm assumes cause & effect relationships apply to people as they do for mechanistic processes and technologies. Great, if valid. However, consulting firms (McKinsey, Connor, Kotter) have reported a dismal 70% failure rate of change management programs. Once again we’ve reached another yellow bubble and the decline of an Age.

The Ecology Age

Underlying the previous two ages is another paradigm: the Order system where the work environment is deemed stable, predictable, repeatable. In the Age of Ecology the real world is 3 systems: Order, Chaos and Complex.  Confusing dilemmas, ambiguous paradoxes, diverse conflicts are accepted as natural occurrences. Mining is a complex adaptive system. The unexpected emergence of new things means “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. People are no longer viewed as predictable cause & effect parts of a machine but are illogical, emotional decision makers. Culture is not a change intervention lever but emerges as system agents (people, objects, events, ideas) interact with each other. Culture is the emergent set of narratives people share everyday.

What’s next

We have no idea how long the Age of Ecology will last. All that we know is something better will eventually come over the horizon. So stay focused managing the evolutionary potential of the Present and keep an open mind to detect the emergence of the next Age.

By examining the Mining Industry’s historical patterns, we have a better understanding what the deep value streams are in what we do today, what we need to preserve for the future, and what we must let go from the past. What remains become the foundation on which new ideas will be born.

Mining has had its share of successes and failures. One thing we can say with certainty about an unpredictable future is that the “2 steps forward, 1 step backwards” learning pattern will continue. We are learning how to learn, experientially.