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‘The mountain hath laboured and brought forth a mouse

This issue is devoted to papers arising from students’ projects. Many times we have elaborated on why we devote valuable space, effort and money to do this. I am not going to repeat the motivation, but express the hope that you find something of interest in the contributions. The publications committee would like to offer a much bigger selection from many more topics to give the readers and particularly the members of the Institute a better perception of the status of teaching and learning at university, technikons, and even colleges and learnerships. But we are at the mercy of the degree of interaction between industry and these centres of tertiary training. This is after all, part of the foundation of a professional society.

I will, however, use this lead-in to exchange some thoughts on one or two aspects of promoting the Institute by concentrating on our technical activities. Not that the ethics, legal and cultural functions are unimportant they require more than ever constant surveillance if the professional institutes are to represent faithfully the pride of their fellowships. It is in the technical aspects that we relate to the competence of our colleagues and the contribution we make to each other and the society we serve. It is in our technical competence that we elevate the Institute above the perception of it being a form of an ‘old boys’ club’ or a trade union to promote maximum material benefits to our members.

Our previous heritage of accreditation of standards in teaching and examination at tertiary institutions for training has now been extended by legal requirements to include such accreditation to post-qualification and post-registration acquisition of updated skills in a world of rapidly increasing sophistication. Our main activity is in colloquia, conferences and publications. As we all know, these have become big money business because of refunds from the training levies imposed by government. Conference planning and organization have now become highly lucrative not only for employers of technical and professional people but for an exponentially expanding plethora of commercial providers of facilities for conferences, many of which are only vaguely related to continuing skills acquisition. The formula for a commercially successful conference is pretty stereotyped. Popular touristy venues, big-name speakers (preferably a cabinet minister or CEO, or a minimum of a department director or senior manager), bandwagon topics, halfhour presentation slots in parallel sessions, PowerPoint slides with attractive pictures and packed with out dated statistical data, short times for discussion, glossy briefcases, good food and cocktail parties, and the ubiquitous exhibitions of commercial advertising.

Typical attendances are around 200 delegates at a registration fee of R5000 to give a million bucks turnover in a couple of days. This is a lucrative business, with huge advertising potential to customers who are prepared to pay to have their staff fooled into thinking they are being trained. But as a worthwhile vehicle for technical advancement and scientific evaluation of new developments in the host country they have dubious value. On a much grander scale, where global international implications can be involved, the conferences are billed as a ‘summit’ for discussion and decision making on vital strategic technically complex global topics. A classic example took place in Johannesburg a few years ago at the Earth Summit Environmental conference attended by tens of thousands of international specialists and hailed as a monumental success. However as an important contribution to global warming and environmental degradation, one gets the impression that ‘the mountain hath laboured and brought forth a mouse’.

After about a million man-hours of deliberation, the main outcome was that poverty was a global scourge and its alleviation was the main target for future crusades. Hardly a surprising outcome. The Institute is a very small carriage in this mammoth conference gravy train. But it would be wonderful to contemplate making an effort to attempt something more significant and meaningful in encouraging skills transfer at all levels among our group of professional cultures. Maybe if the focus were to change from devising ‘bandwagon topics’ that would attract a multitude of registrations to defining ‘outcomes’ (to use the latest expression for beneficial results). This may need re-formatting our planning discs. Some examples from our history might convey the concept better. The first significant break from the traditional monthly meeting activity occurred in the early 1970s.
They were traumatic potentially bankrupting initiatives to bring out top-level fully paid specialists to introduce much needed updating technology to sanctions ridden South Africa. The first was in the form of a ‘winter school’ led by professors Rex Bull and Andrew Mular from the Colorado School of Mines and the University of British Columbia respectively, on the statistical design and control of mineral processing plants, using the latest computer modelling and data analysis methods. These were aimed at plant superintendents, plant operators, consultants, academics and recent graduates. Computers had to be set up at Wits University for hands-on exercises with lectures and theoretical background for consecutive eight-hour days with detailed course manuals as handouts. On the mining side, the first faltering steps in specialized international self-underwritten events was the Open Pit Conference to introduce the most modern computer designed and management methods for ultra-low cost open cast mining methods.

These two initiatives were outstanding successes, which revolutionized the activities of the SAIMM. The planned outcomes were achieved after sell-out repeats and, in fact, the Open Pit conference proceedings became an internationally accepted reference text book. They soon evolved into a pattern of activities that became the envy of the other members of the associated scientific and technical societies. As an incidental but much valued impact, they led to a new dimension in the SAIMM finance and corporate prestige. At the time these were high-risk new ventures for a professional society that raised many eyebrows. Is it not perhaps time for another untraditional quantum leap into more beneficial, outcomes-based professional promotion activities? Is it not time for a turnaround in conference organization thinking?

The pattern that worked so well thirty years ago and has now been monotonously stereotyped needs changing in the light of the revolution in communication technology. Rather than choosing a bandwagon topic, how about deciding what beneficial ‘outcomes’ are aimed at, and presenting the ‘papers’ before the conference takes place via an Internet forum with an invitation for some questions and debate through the Internet. The conference then takes place in planned panel seminars with a final plenary session to finalize decisions and defined activities to make the outcomes happen. What an interesting approach to handle the multitude of long-term national planning with informed and transparent input from professionals. I have no problem in specifying many desperately needed ‘outcomes’ to form topics. I am sure the same applies to most professional people in government, industry and research. Skills definitions, facilities to provide training and regulation are near the top of the list for a host of activities. With our new website, we have a launching pad for some new creative thinking in promoting our professional stature.  R.E. Robinson   April 2007

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