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Earth Explorer is an online source of news, expertise and applied knowledge for resource explorers and earth scientists. Sponsored by Geosoft.

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Knowledge management closes the data-personnel gap

Virginia Heffernan

Like an earthquake rumbling along a fault line, there is a rift spreading under exploration departments throughout the mining industry. Within a few years, the critical gap between the demand for more exploration data, and the supply of expertise to process it, may widen past the point of no return.

On one side of the rift is the data deluge. As technology becomes more sophisticated, more data is being created. There are growing amounts of data in various formats stored on CDs, hard disks and scribbled in notebooks. Though companies have spent millions to collect and archive their data, much of this information is unavailable to geoscientists because companies don’t have a standard, reliable and easy ways to find and share their data.

On the other side of the fault line is an acute and growing labour shortage. The Canadian mining industry alone will need up to 81,000 new people to meet its current and future needs, according to Prospecting the Future, a recent report on the state of human resources in the mining industry published by MITAC.

Exploration geoscientists, who left the industry in droves during that last industry downturn the late 1990s, are an especially precious resource. Most of those remaining in the business, the traditional gatekeepers of exploration knowledge, are heading for retirement within the next decade or two. And there aren’t nearly enough university graduates to replace them.

The immediate result is that fewer and fewer geoscientists are using more and more data, creating serious bottlenecks within exploration departments. Geoscientists say they spend 50-70% of their time finding, preparing and analyzing data. They have become data specialists instead of doing the job they were hired for: finding orebodies.

The end result is that discovery rates, instead of benefiting from increasing amounts of valuable data, will remain static or even drop. Currently, only one in thousands of grassroots projects becomes a mine. This rate is unsustainable if the industry hopes to feed the growing appetite for metals in countries like China and India.

But what if exploration managers could - despite the shortage of geoscientists - improve their discovery rate, or, at the very least, double or triple the number of projects they process on an annual basis?

It can be done, but only if companies adopt a knowledge management strategy that brings together disparate data, provides a natural workflow for geoscientists and data administrators, and integrates different applications into a seamless method for capturing, processing and analyzing data. This must be done within a framework that clearly integrates the needs of both the company and the geoscientists.

Only then will geoscientists be freed up to look for orebodies instead of wrestling with data.

“By improving the data experience, and making it easer to convert data to knowledge, geoscientists can recapture a good percentage of the time lost to data overhead and get back to their jobs in exploration,” says Tim Dobush, CEO for Geosoft. “Given the human resource bottleneck, getting more productivity from this valuable resource is important.”

Traditionally, there have been three main steps geoscientists must follow before they can convert data into knowledge: data discovery and preparation (reformatting, georeferencing and subsetting), knowledge creation through processing and analysis, and data integration and sharing for insight development that leads to decision-making.

Progressing through these steps is becoming an increasingly time-consuming process partly because there is more data to consume, but mainly because the data resides in disparate locations and is disconnected from data consumers.

Furthermore, there is no strategy to support a shared data experience, where all the data, workflows, applications and systems work together to support effective use of these resources by geoscientists for knowledge development.

A well-defined knowledge management strategy can accelerate these steps, shaving hours, even days off the time geoscientists spend retrieving data.

From a company perspective, this means devising, championing and communicating a knowledge management strategy, investing in IT infrastructure and software as well as HR resources, incentives and training.

From an IT perspective, that may mean introducing a centralized data management system where data is managed and available to all members of the exploration team.

From an HR perspective, it means providing the right incentives and support system (for example, hiring data administrators) to motivate and support geoscientists to contribute to the central system and providing standardized procedures that make uploading and retrieving data to and from the sever a natural part of a geoscientist’s workflow.

Technology enablers also play a role. Middleware that supports several different applications provides data to individual preferences. A standard applications platform takes this integrated approach a step further, making it easier for data users to communicate with each other.

Introducing this type of knowledge management strategy improves efficiency and, and as result, frees up geologists to convert the data into the knowledge needed to pinpoint orebodies or process projects faster.

Another important, though often overlooked, benefit is the ability to retain and share knowledge, a vital competitive advantage in an era when geoscientists are retiring and becoming increasingly difficult to replace.

Companies must incorporate knowledge retention into their IT and HR strategies or risk losing the data, knowledge and experience they need for future exploration. Sharing that knowledge saves time, reduces communication costs and allows mining companies to take on more projects and, ultimately, be more productive and potentially more profitable.

Geoscientists interact with data – numbers and text – to turn it into information and give it meaning. In this way, explicit knowledge that can be articulated and shared easily among individuals in a formal context evolves into tacit knowledge that is personal and shaped from an individual’s experiences and perspectives.

A successful strategy to improve retention and sharing considers both types of knowledge from an IT and HR perspective. To retain explicit knowledge, IT’s role is to provide a reliable, user-friendly system of finding and processing data and information. HR’s role is to standardize procedures and workflows, or best practices, to capture, manage and disseminate that knowledge and then educate staff about these procedures.

In this case, the emphasis is on the company and the significant investment it has made in acquiring explicit knowledge such as data from geochemical and geophysical surveys. From an efficiency and cost efficiency standpoint, a server-based approach is preferable.

To retain tacit knowledge, the IT department must support people within the company to communicate with each other and share information. HR’s role is to motivate those same people to share by setting up multidisciplinary or protégé-mentor teams and/or providing one-on-one training.

In this case, the emphasis is on the individual and how they interact with others, either in one-to-one conversations or team environments. When devising strategy, both IT and HR professionals must recognize that tacit knowledge – while extremely valuable – is time-consuming and expensive to maintain and difficult to systemize.

In both cases, technology enablers that are reliable and simple to use play a crucial role in retaining and sharing knowledge by providing data management repositories and application tools and making it easier for staff to communicate and share their work.

By embracing an effective knowledge management strategy, companies can not only close the widening rift between the volumes of data and the supply of geoscientists needed to process it, but also retain and share knowledge that could lead to the next big discovery.