Corporate memory

Editorial by Peter McCarthy, Chairman Emeritus / Principal Engineer – AMC Consultants

Until the digital era, mining companies operated internal libraries which stored and indexed technical reports and memos so that they were accessible to all technical staff. When I was given a technical assignment the first port of call was the records office, to check on the history of the topic by keyword.  For example, the subject of “drill steel breakage” would lead me to 50 years of reports, analysis and suggestions. If the subject was obscure, friendly staff members in the records office pointed me in the right direction.

This system began to break down in Australia during the austerity era of the early 1980s, when a new generation of managers saw the records and library system as an unnecessary cost. Computers were the new knowledge centre. I spent a lot of time reorganising my files into the KWIC indexing system on a card-operated mainframe computer, and the records department was shut down.

At Zinc Corporation the records went into a drill core shed. At South Broken Hill they went into an old stope. At CSA mine they went into a big subsidence hole. At Kambalda they were burnt. At Mount Isa they went into archive storage, but were largely forgotten.

Coincidentally, Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union experienced a similar loss of knowledge with the breakdown of the Soviet systems in the 1980s. Formerly excellent systems of record keeping were discontinued, although the data was not destroyed but was stored in archives on mine sites, in local libraries or government departments and the connection with potential users was lost. A mining industry with a long and distinguished history now struggles to plan the future without key geology and logging information. The old paper records are often available, but because they are not in a format to be easily digitized, or the logs in a form to be used in a formal logging system, they are not used.

Of course I would rather research a subject today, using the internet, than using the old paper indexes. But we have lost much of the corporate memory at each operation. What work has been done on this subject before? Why did that stope fail? How did we manage the inundation in 1995? In the past, long-standing employees could provide some continuity and corporate memory. Today, with luck, such questions can usually be answered by an on-site staff member for the previous three years or so, before which there is usually no-one remaining to tell the story. And if that staff member is out on break at a fly-in, fly-out operation, the knowledge is not available. If there ever was a paper report, it has been taken by a departing staff member or put in an archive box. If the report is electronic its location has been lost, or it has been transferred to an archive file, or it has been accidentally deleted.

The complete records of one mine including all plans, reports and desktop computers were put into a sea container and sent interstate when it was taken over. The sea container was lost. One project I worked on generated many gigabytes of valuable reports and geological interpretations. They were stored on a central computer which disappeared when the mine was put on care and maintenance.

What can we do about this loss of knowledge? Will mining always be two steps forward and one step back?

One solution emerged accidentally from the 1980s, when we at AMC began getting calls from clients who wanted to know what had happened on their mine in the past. A consultancy has to have an excellent records system, with every project assigned a job code and with information stored in categories. Access is based on confidentiality provisions. We were able to provide all AMC reports and much material that had originally been provided by the client. Today AMC has a massive computer storage system and all documents are stored electronically. We also have, in safe storage, rooms full of box files that pre-date the current system and for which we pay monthly storage fees. We regularly help clients with lost information and also with converting their old paper data into useable digital formats. This is not a simple data processing task, but needs to be done by experienced geologists and engineers.

Of course, this is not the whole solution. Consultancies have to keep track of information to remain in business. Exploration projects and mines can operate with a level of corporate amnesia. Even well-intentioned managers are caught out by changes in software and hardware systems, changes in project codes, and failure of staff to follow procedures. Some managers see little value in past learnings, preferring to create their own crises and then be seen to manage them.

The large mining houses manage information well already. They have corporate internets and systems of coding and storing reports that probably surpass the systems of the pre-digital era. But many mines and projects are not owned by major mining houses, and their technical records remain vulnerable. Accounting systems are audited regularly, for good reason. There is a need for similar audits of technical record keeping to ensure that such records are coded, accessible and identifiable, and that operations are conducted in accordance with previously agreed procedures. Too often, incident investigations reveal failures of compliance due to ignorance rather than ill intent.

If you are managing an exploration project, development project or mine, think about how you can improve storage and access to technical information. Will someone doing your job in five years’ time be aware of what you know? Will a future incident investigation reveal that some risks were known but forgotten? Will the geological models of the mine be preserved across generations, so that our grandchildren can plan a redevelopment in a different economic climate?

Be aware that if the focus is just on storage then, like manual backups, it won’t get done. If the focus is on dynamic management which focuses on enhancing daily production activities, thus providing an incentive for the user at the same time as intrinsically promoting good storage, then it will get done.

The orphaned knowledge already stored in archives in countries such as Russia is a valuable resource to be exploited by project owners and technical staff alike. Converting it to digital form offers potentially rich rewards by making it available to geologists, geotechnical engineers and mining engineers for use in estimating Mineral Resources and Ore Reserves and in mine planning.

If you need help with any of this, consider using a consultant.