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The Exploration Manager's ultimate guide to digital transformation

December 20, 2022

The Exploration Manager's ultimate guide to digital transformation

Digital Transformation
For Exploration Managers
Guide
Written by
Sachee Perera

Today's Exploration Managers face some of the toughest challenges yet. Everyone is scrambling to make discoveries NOW as demand for future minerals outpaces production.

Success is determined only by meaningful discovery, but due to macroeconomic factors, budgets are contracting, and the cost of running your operations is soaring.

Meanwhile, there is mounting pressure to implement technology across the value chain to meet rapidly changing expectations of what a modern mining operation should look like.

It’s no wonder many mining professionals are increasingly looking to digital transformation to help find efficiencies, reduce costs and increase performance.

However, many fail to deliver successful change, falling flat after being unable to bridge the gap between idealised planning and execution.

You don't want to become one of them, right?

Then you've come to the right place.

Why should you read this guide?

This Guide addresses everything Exploration Managers need to consider before attempting a digital transformation - and how to avoid some common mistakes on the road to success.

After you’ve finished reading, you’ll be better placed to consider if a complete digital transformation is right for your exploration team, right now. You will also have the beginnings of a roadmap to guide you in preparing your exploration team for the change.

 

Before you get started

What does digital transformation mean for exploration teams?

Responding to challenges faced by the industry requires more than throwing new software products or devices at the wall and hoping they’ll stick. Many Exploration Managers have fallen foul of this common trap in an attempt to be seen to do something and respond to demands for results from shareholders, Board Members and Managing Directors.

Enter one of the biggest buzzwords in mining today: digital transformation, aka the complete integration of digital technology across all business areas. 

Sounds simple in theory, right? But the definition fails to represent the reality that successful digital transformations go beyond simply integrating and using technology in your business. It requires the entire organisation to embrace a new mindset around how technology and data are used in every stage of an exploration project’s workflow to empower people to focus on discovery. 

This extends beyond visualisation and modelling technology to incorporate your entire operations, rethinking processes, systems and the purpose of data.

...and what it’s not

One of the biggest blockers mining professionals face in their push for a digital transformation is a lack of understanding from their teams and stakeholders. 

It goes something like this:

We’re already using technology. Doesn’t that mean we’ve already completed a digital transformation?

Yes - most exploration teams are already using technology in some capacity. You’re probably already using a combination of software products to plan your holes and build geological models. 

But what about all the other data related to running your operations that live in between? For many exploration companies, this data lives on paper or in a spreadsheet or complex database that creates data silos across the business.

These silos hide valuable insights that can help you find operational efficiencies and reduce expenditure. The more you can remove these digital barriers and bring this data together into a complete digital ecosystem, the more information you can draw upon when making decisions.

But there’s a catch: this data cannot live in spreadsheets!

Copying spreadsheets and manually entering or transferring data between disconnected digital systems does NOT qualify as a digital transformation in 2022, let alone 2023 and beyond.

Why? It’s because your team are working for the system - it’s not working for your team. 

Spreadsheets are unwieldy to use. It’s easy to miss critical details and errors in thousands of cells. Working with macros can be a usability nightmare, and don’t even get me started on version control issues! They’re also slow to use, especially if you’re working off file-sharing networks like OneDrive with multiple people needing access simultaneously.

Building a workflow that’s reliant on people puts you in a difficult position if they leave and sets up an incoming team for endless frustration. 

It’s never been more important to retain good people. It’s time to put people, not the system, in charge. A digital transformation is the only way to free your team from a complex spreadsheet workflow and create a system that works for them, not against them.

 

The changing role of the Exploration Manager in mining's digital future

As technology and market conditions change, so are the expectations of the modern Exploration Manager. Never has it been so important to regularly evaluate the performance of your software stack and stay up-to-date with emerging trends and technologies.

There’s an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and position yourself as an industry leader as mining gears up for its digital future. The timing for that opportunity is right now.

Investing in your team by giving them the tools they need to succeed ahead of the inevitable wave of industry-wide digitalisation will help you differentiate yourself as a leader in the field. Taking action will demonstrate that ‘future-focused’ is more than just a saying for yourself and your team.

It’s a once-in-a-career opportunity to get ahead of the pack, walk the talk with your investors and catapult yourself into a future where digital drill programs are the new normal. 

Don’t make the mistake of waiting for change to come to you. Start planning now for 2023 and beyond right now. If you’re reading this guide, you’re already on your way. 

 

Planning for success

Understanding your ‘why’

Digitising every area of your business and bringing it together is a massive undertaking. It cannot be done overnight and usually not in a linear fashion. Expect to be in it ‘for the long haul’ and anticipate that you’ll face many unknowns as your team adjusts to thinking and working in new ways.

It pays to be mentally prepared for the change. Expect life to get in the way. You could strike mineralisation unexpectedly and have to scale your operations quickly, face budget cuts or even staff departures, and have to get creative to keep the process moving forward.

The finish line may also move throughout the project as new technologies become available and you continuously review the performance and impact of the transformation on your team. Flexibility, creativity and keeping an agile mindset will help you cope with challenges as they arise. 

This is why it’s critical to understand your ‘why’. For most Exploration Managers, this probably looks like ‘more time spent on work that matters’ - usually the geology.

A strong reason ‘why’ that you can articulate to your team establishes a vision for everyone to work towards, particularly through significant changes and hard times when motivation could start to wane.

A solid ‘why’ also helps you secure buy-in from your leadership team by clearly defining the value you seek to gain from the project. This is critical if you want a license to proceed with the change and keep the project from being shelved or disrupted in favour of reactive decisions or ‘quick fixes’.

It’s unreasonable to expect your team to be enthusiastic about a change if their leaders aren’t, so make it strong, clear, achievable and, importantly, commit to it!

 

The questions you need to answer

Suppose you’ve reached your digital goals. What does this look like, and what would it enable your team to achieve? What’s standing in the way of you being able to get there right now?

Some of the common problems we hear from Exploration Managers who approach us looking to make a change in their digital workflow include:

  • Data silos
  • Fractured communication between the field team and the office
  • Version control and data handling issues
  • Insights stuck on paper
  • Confusing workflow with too many products
  • Manually transferring data between paper, spreadsheets and databases.

Or a combination of these.

What problems are you experiencing in your workflow?

Asking this question will help you identify the data and process problems you need to solve and prioritise any changes that will greatly impact your business.

Use them to develop a roadmap to guide you on the types of products you need (or need to get rid of), how they should fit into or replace parts of your workflow, and in what order (more on that shortly).

A deep understanding of what problems you need to solve will also help you stay on track when exploring software solutions and avoid being sucked into the temptation of new features or discount prices that won’t help you get closer to your goals. 

Plus, it’ll help you tackle difficult conversations like whether or not you should keep using systems that cost a lot but no longer serve your needs.

 

Defining success

You probably have a huge range of goals for your drill programs. For example, you might want to:

  • Increase bit-on-bottom time
  • Reduce data entry time
  • Reduce consumable wastage
  • Decrease the cost per metre drilled.

Chances are you have some sort of answer to these questions. Years of experience and gut feel can go a long way. Still, there’s no doubt that the data you collect, when presented in the right way, can help reveal insights that lie deep below the surface of your daily operations.

This is how a digital transformation can be transformative for your business. The right systems and tools can take you beyond digitising your data and spreadsheets, putting insights directly into your hands through visualisations and easy manipulation.

This enables you to use your data to create measurable performance goals and track your progress toward them with confidence that you’re spending time on tasks that are objectively moving the needle.

Take this example. We recently worked with a mid-tier exploration company to digitise their operations using our drill program intelligence platform, Exploration Hub. The Exploration Manager at this company wanted to increase productivity at the drill site by maximising the amount of time spent drilling.

They knew their rigs and contractors were arriving to site on time and present for the entire duration of each shift. But progress wasn’t aligning with their expectations - the number of holes and metres drilled were continually short of their targets.

They had nothing but positive experiences with this contractor before and were confused by this lack of performance. The Exploration Manager was increasingly frustrated at the wasted time and money and considered choosing a different contractor for their upcoming drill programs.

After digitising their data from paper plods to drill program intelligence software, the Exploration Manager could categorise and visualise each rig’s time activities at scale. From this view, they could see that standby time was far above what would have been considered reasonable for this project. They were then able to take this report to their team. They discovered it was actually inadequate planning on the Site Geologists’ part, failing to prepare the site and bring the appropriate equipment to the shift. 

Effective data visualisation uncovered the need to rethink how the team prepared for their shifts. Manipulating the data through categorisation created an easy way to set and track measurable time goals. A process was designed to prevent time wastage and increase the percentage of shift time spent drilling in future shifts. The new process's effectiveness could be tracked by measuring standby time on a shift-by-shift basis and, in the long term, through data presentation using tables and charts.

It also prevented unnecessary damage to the relationship with a reliable drilling company. It protected the future of the drilling contract by bringing everyone on the same page.

Had the data not been presented and explored in this way and remained dormant in a spreadsheet, the consequences on the drill program - and business relationship with the driller - could have been severe. An ineffective data solution may have delivered a very different outcome - that would have been avoidable!

Let's explore the factors worth considering in selecting a digital solution as part of your digital journey so you can achieve similar successful outcomes as this Exploration Manager did.

 

Using software to solve business problems

The software and digital tools you use to run your exploration workflow make up your exploration software stack.

Each product in your software stack plays a role in the overall success of your digital transformation. However, this doesn’t mean that every exploration software stack needs to look the same to achieve great results.

Regardless of what products you choose to incorporate in your stack, every Exploration Manager has the same important core goal: to run their drill programs on time and on budget.

Some stacks better enable you to do this, or any other strategic goal, than others.

What separates the cream from the crop, you might ask?

From years of working with exploration teams on their digital workflows, we've identified five common themes that suggest a healthy modern exploration stack with a productive workflow. When it comes time to evaluate which products you want to leverage to achieve your goals, it may help to keep these in mind.

 

Interoperability

Interoperability means that data can be easily transferred between software platforms, saving time and effort in wrangling the data and helping you get the most out of your software stack.

It can also help you efficiently compare results across your drill programs and give you a complete picture of your entire operations.

Unfortunately, some Exploration Managers are stuck using products that don’t work well with other systems. Maybe they even need to pay to export their data, keeping them locked into a suboptimal software solution. It might be accepted because it’s ‘the way it’s done here’ or ‘we’ve already spent so much money on this product’.

It's important to remember that just because a software product worked well for you in the past doesn't necessarily mean it's the best solution for you today.

How much time and efficiency could you lose by staying with the status quo?

Choosing open systems that will let you use your data when you need it and how you need it will give you more flexibility to design a software stack that will work best for your team. 

 

Less is more

Software can be a fantastic tool for your exploration team - but like many things in life, it's possible to have too much of a good thing!

Having too many software products makes it complicated for your team to see who needs to do what, by when and where to find the information they need.

The more complex the workflow, the less likely it will be used correctly when workloads increase and the time taken to complete simple tasks detracts from more critical work. 

Exploring software that helps you to streamline and consolidate multiple tasks into one platform reduces the complexity of your stack and helps keep everyone on the same page. 

Remember - make the system work for your team, don’t make your team work for the system.


User-friendliness

There’s no point investing in software if your team can’t (or won’t) use it. 

Digital tools should make following processes and locating and analysing data easier, not harder. 

The software market is continuously changing to respond to the developing needs of a modernising mining industry. If you’ve ever been left frustrated with a software product and wondered if there’s a better way - there probably is!

Great software is designed around users, helping them to work smarter, not harder. If your software makes your team want to tear their hair out, it’s time to look for new software.

 

Automation of manual tasks

How much time are you and your geos spending on manual paperwork? 

Up to 30% of mining professionals spend more than 30% of their time on data management tasks. Time that could be spent on more important tasks like analysis, interpretation and discovery. Time that you’re paying for at a geologist’s rate of pay! 

Most forward-thinking leaders in exploration want their team working on the stuff that moves the needle. They know that geologists are not admins, but the reality of the job is that there is a lot of paperwork.

The reality? Copying spreadsheets and manually entering data into systems does NOT qualify as a digital transformation in 2022!

The good news is that new software can replace traditional paper and spreadsheet-based processes and clunky old-school application-based software with collaborative digital workspaces built for running drill programs.

What could you achieve if you were able to leverage the power of automation to complete daily manual tasks like:

  • Entering plods into a database
  • Calculating costs
  • Reconciling charges
  • Running reports.

This leads me to my final point:


It just works

We’re living in 2022. Ordering pizza from your couch is a seamless software experience, so why shouldn’t your work be the same?

Your software stack should help - not hinder - you to do your best work. If it’s adding to the time to complete tasks or increasing the complexity of your workflow, it’s got to go!

Do some or all of these pillars ring true for your software stack? If not, it might be time to review and consider alternative solutions to replace or enhance the roadblocks in your workflow.

You may want to use these pillars as a guide when evaluating existing or potential software products when designing your roadmap.

Speaking of guides, did you know that we also have a free Software Buyer's Guide for Exploration Managers to help you make better software decisions for your team?

The Guide uses a simple, seven-question framework to help you evaluate a product offering and prepare for a software demo. 

 

How digital transformations fail

Trying to do too much, too soon OR too little, too slow!

Setting a good cadence with your digital transformation efforts can help you avoid losing momentum. You'll need to strike a balance between minimising the impact on your operations and ensuring you stay on track with your plan to reach your goal.

The size of your exploration company and the sense of urgency for change will be the main factors that influence what a realistic time frame looks like for you.

For instance, a Junior company with only a few employees will likely find it much easier to coordinate calendars for regular meetings and training sessions compared to an Enterprise company with multiple stakeholders.

This might mean scheduling aspects of your transformation, such as training for a new software platform, based on the time of year, drilling season or other factors.

Suppose you need to bring more than one team or business unit along for the ride. In that case, we recommend a pilot and scale approach to minimise disruption and allow for time to learn and make mistakes without interrupting your daily operations. 

We wrote another article that explains this process in greater depth about how long it takes to get started with Exploration Hub, based on our experience working with 50+ mining companies to help them digitise their operations. Even if you aren't looking at drill program intelligence software, the learnings can be extrapolated to any mining software. 

 

Not including your team in the change

Poor communication risks misunderstanding. 

If you’ve taken the time to read this, you're probably already acutely aware of what's at stake by failing to change. But that doesn't mean your team have the same level of understanding!

The nature of an exploration company’s structure is for your geology team to be embedded in daily operational problems. Whereas for you as the Exploration Manager? You’re busy handling the strategic business problems and ‘the bigger picture’ stuff that your team aren’t neccessarily across.

An exception might be in a Junior company, where the hierarchy and structure are less defined.

Still, it never hurts to take an extra few minutes to make sure everyone is on the same page and united in the 'why'.

One of the biggest fears in the mining industry is that technology and automation are out to replace jobs, but this is a broad oversimplification that’s been largely dismissed by research and industry thought leaders. 

The reality is a future workforce can leverage technology for greater productivity, operational sustainability and more time spent on meaningful skill-based work.   

Framing the changes in the context of your team’s pain points is an effective way to communicate this message and dispel unnecessary fears. 

For example, you might explain to your geologists that you understand that they spent many years studying to become a geologist, and this is how they can make the biggest impact on the team. By utilising software that reduces how much time they spend doing manual paperwork, they can spend more time focused on discovery, which they are also surely more passionate about.  

You can avoid potential disruption by communicating early and openly with your team and bringing them in on conversations about how they can add value by leveraging technology in their roles. You might be surprised by the response you receive!

 

Spending too much on unnecessary customisation

How much customisation do you really need?

Savvy marketing campaigns run by mining software companies often suggest that ultra customisation is the only way to unlock your data's power and reach workflow enlightenment. A promise - that comes with an exorbitant price tag.

But is this level of customisation really necessary?

Whilst every drilling program is different, the processes you follow are essentially the same. You still need to apply for the relevant permits, plan the holes, hire a driller, drill the holes, collect the samples, run reports and analyse the results. 

Does this require a new custom platform to be developed from scratch when plenty of software out there will allow for sufficient configuration to complete the same tasks at a fraction of the price?

Until recently, there hasn’t been an alternative option. Either pay the price or keep using paper and spreadsheets and pay consultants to manage the rest for you.

As a result, budgetary constraints have been a significant barrier to software adoption amongst exploration teams, but the recent rise of Software as a Service is changing this.

Software as a Service enables exploration teams to embark on digital transformations using configurable off-the-shelf products for a fraction of the price of their traditional counterparts.

You heard it here first: the days of paying hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars out of pocket for sub-par software are over!

What's the difference between configurable and custom?

With custom, you are the product architect and can build however you see fit. A configurable product will allow you to modify certain product parts within set constraints. For example, relabelling, adding or deleting steps in a field activity workflow and changing the colour tags of each step at the hole is a configuration offered on Exploration Hub.

Configuration can be done by the user (ie you). In contrast, custom requires a developer to build and implement changes for you. This means you'll need to pay and wait longer for the changes. You'll also be responsible for ongoing costs like maintenance, product development and support to ensure it remains compatible with your operating system. 

Under the Software as a Service model, all of the above are included in an affordable monthly price.

All things considered, customisation is nice to have. Having your name and branding on a product is a huge achievement. But we would encourage you to question if this is worth it in the long term and if you can obtain measurable value above and beyond that of a more affordable, configurable product in the long term.

 

What next?

Exploration Managers are at a critical juncture in their careers. 

As mining warms up to digitalisation, the time is now to decide if your company will jump or be pushed into the oncoming wave of digitalisation. 

It’s no secret that executing this level of change will be challenging, but the benefits could be profound for your exploration team.

Imagine your geologists being freed from the burden of repetitive paperwork and sub-par software. How much more time and energy could be opened up for work that really matters? How much money could be saved along the way? Can you really afford not to change?

If you’re ready to start your digital journey, our team can assist you.

Our drill program intelligence software package is designed to help you stop spreadsheet chaos by bridging the gap between planning your drill program and interpreting your results.

You can explore our Exploration Blog to learn more about digitising your exploration operations.

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