Industry placements to accelerate innovation
by Dr Chris Vernon
Temporary staff placements to accelerate innovation and create long term value
Changing markets and opportunities require mineral processing operations to develop and adapt on a cyclical basis.
Large investments are made into these developments with the expectation the results will bring added value to the operation.
However, it is not uncommon for industry operations to have gaps in the knowledge or expertise required to develop new projects or processes. This is especially true for smaller organisations.
Failing to recognise the need to fill these gaps can put more pressure on internal teams and can result in failure to deliver projects with the required outcomes, cost and timeframe.
There are ways to fill these gaps that are achievable and adaptable regardless of business size, needs or resources and that provide mutual benefits between industry operations and R&D organisations.
Projects need diverse expertise and perspective to succeed
There are bound to be knowledge gaps in nearly any industry organisation; some obvious, some less so.
This becomes more obvious when a new project is undertaken that requires different expertise.
In mineral processing, this is particularly true for projects that require specific science and engineering knowledge.
Even the best internal team can benefit from different perspectives, such as someone from the R&D sector.
While there are many very experienced staff in industry, few also have significant experience in R&D.
Failing to recognise missing knowledge and rectifying it prior to undertaking innovation can lead to a range of problems for operations, including:
- poor selection of project goals, such as an underestimation of the technical complexity of an opportunity, or the failure to identify a high value opportunity
- an R&D program that is not as effective or as efficient as it could be, which can reduce or eliminate the chance of success, and
- long term lost opportunities for improved productivity and staff development.
In situations where necessary expertise is missing or a new perspective is sought, usually the first thought is to recruit.
Many companies do not have the financial resources to take on additional personel to fill that niche. The specific expertise required may be hard to recruit for, or the need for the expertise may be short term and so doesn’t require an ongoing position.
Some organisations turn to projects with external R&D providers, but these typically have a defined scope and timeframe.
Projects that require innovation, new ideas and expert problem solving often benefit from an integrated and more sustained input.
Project outcomes and overall knowledge can be improved through incorporating experts for a short term
If you find that you cannot solve problems with existing staff and are unable to recruit (because of cost, expertise, or time limitations), there are other options available to you.
Secondments, exchanges, and short-term contracts are being increasingly used by both industry and R&D organisations to improve their skillsets and experience, as well as the success of individual projects.
They are not always easy to successfully instigate, with costs, timing, salary arrangements, backfilling, etc. all having to be considered. But these issues can be overcome with the right preparation:
- Identify situations where you would benefit from new expertise or perspective. The natural reaction for many is to use existing knowledge, skills, and people, while turning down the idea of external people because of cost or difficulty. Having the self-awareness to recognise areas that are beyond internal skillsets will improve chances of success.
- Know what you’re trying to achieve – do you want to take more time to come up with the best possible process, or are you searching for a simpler process that delivers a quicker return?
- Identify the skillset you need. Depending on your needs, it can be difficult to find the right person with the right expertise. Knowing exactly what you require, and for how long, is vital.
- Finally, consider where you’re going to find this person. They need to not only have the right skills but be available and working in an organisation that’s supportive of the arrangement.
Inviting an expert in through either secondment or short-term contract in your operations is a completely different approach to simply partnering with an external expert or organisation for a project.
It’s not someone doing something on your behalf or for you, but someone coming in and becoming part of your team.
Your team will gain direct knowledge of a new skillset, as well as improving their ability to recognise what sort of problems they can solve themselves and when they need an expert.
The operation can benefit from the external expert having the opportunity to determine the best use of their time and think longer term, which will deliver a greater result than if they were to just work on the particular problem at hand.
Secondment is the middle ground – providing the capability you need on a more sustained basis than a project, with a smaller risk compared to a recruit.
Secondment success example: CSIRO expert joins industry project
Since February 2020, CSIRO’s Mark Cooksey has been on leave to allow him to undertake a 6-month contract with Australian Bauxite Limited (ABX) to provide them with his expertise in process development and commercialisation.
Recognising they didn’t have the internal skills in their small team to develop a new process, ABX brought Mark on to help them – an option that gave them the capabilities they required in the short term, with a reduced financial risk.
The work Mark has carried out with the ABX team has allowed them to be able to control the reaction of fluorine acids with metal oxides, allowing them to use cheaper raw materials to produce aluminium fluoride, a chemical required in the aluminium smelting process.
Mark has been able to apply his pre-existing knowledge and give a broader view and expertise than was available from ABX’s internal team.
This has allowed ABX to successfully identify core technical challenges and opportunities, and given them a much better fundamental understanding of their technical challenges.
Sharing expertise with flexible and supportive arrangements
Temporary placements of staff in different organisations can deliver large benefits, to both the organisations and the individual.
It provides the opportunity and ability for industry organisations to gain access to a smorgasbord of experts without directly having to employ them, enabling operations to swap between skillsets easily, as needed.
We are at the forefront of removing the barriers to short-term placements and encourage our staff to pursue these arrangements. Not only do we have some of the leading R&D experts available, but we have flexibility and a framework in place to accommodate exchanges and secondments.
As a large organisation with broad skill sets, we can generally find someone to solve your problem and are confident we can assist you with:
- more rapid technical development, leading to increased revenue and reduced costs
- faster problem solving
- establishment of better relationships between staff in businesses and R&D organisations, that will catalyse future opportunities.
We have extensive experience in seconding staff to industry, and administers Australian Government programs to foster this (for example, Innovation Connect).
Because of this close relationship, our employees offer not only incredible technical expertise, but a better cultural fit for your company (and vice versa when industry staff take up a place at CSIRO for the purposes of technology transfer).
A number of our employees are in or have undertaken external work placements, and a number of industry employees have also come to CSIRO for periods of learning and facility use.
If you’re interested in successfully developing new processes, or improving the skillsets of your team through expert collaboration, we are in a unique position to help.
Email me, Chris.Vernon@csiro.au, to explore how we can help you to explore partnership possibilities available.