What do experts expect when they speak of "Competent Persons"?

Expert opinion was sought as part of a doctoral study to clarify the notion of Competent Person within the JORC Code context.  In particular, experts were invited to comment on the implicit qualifying factors for this competency.  The following analysis of the experts’ contributions is extracted from my thesis.  Three themes of expert expectations emerged in the study:

1. Experts challenge the interpretation of the minimum 5 years' experience criteria

2. Experts emphasise the importance of the content of workplace experiences

3. The type and style of workplace learning is important and essential for development of requisite competency

In most cases, experts emphasised more than five years’ experience is necessary to comment competently on the risk associated with resource estimation and classification.  Although the standard five year’ criteria are accepted as necessary as minimum criteria, experts expanded on this requirement to insist that it was the quality of the experiences leading up to and lived through those 5 years that matter.

Beyond the criteria for a minimum of five years’ experience, there is a call for those five years’ experience to have contributed to the development of both the depth and breadth of the Competent Person’s professional capabilities.  Critical experiences are those that are embedded in geological context and exposure to the whole mine value chain as these experiences enable the Competent Persons to assess potential consequences in estimates because they can “see clues in the data” (i8) and incorporate a “judgment/experience overlay” (i8) when classifying and assessing the risks: “Risk blindness is only resolved by experience and having a specific background” (i8).  This depth and breadth ensures the Competent Person “understands the context of the business beyond the mechanical act of estimation” (i8). 

The quality of experience that engages with the geological context is considered especially more valuable than simply exposure to the process of estimation. There is a very real perception among experts that the younger generation operate within the virtual world of the computer.  This is evidenced by an apparent disconnect between the virtual world within the software and the real in-ground deposit. 

Mining experience, particularly underground experience helps geologist “think in 3D when they are underground” (i19).  Geologists “need to understand how an estimate is going to be used – what decisions will be made using that estimate?” (i17). The geological experience should thus precede any foray into resource estimation:  “… if you have a geostatistics focus and go straight into a geostats role and never spend any time on the ground and have never dealt with real mining issues, you’ll also be a bit light on for the 5 year experience requirement” (i6).  Ideally the Competent Person is “intimately involved with the data, the geology and the mining issues … (and so)… is best placed to generate accurate resource estimates” (i4). “(W)hen there is a marriage of geology and the resource model the quality is better” (i1).   “They have to demonstrate an understanding to me of all the different components that go in to developing a resource statement, and have done all of them at some stage in their career” (i2).  So more than simple exposure of five years to a style of geology and activity, the experts identified:

More specifically, Competent Persons’ “breadth of experience” (i18) should enable them “to really understand the combinations and consequence” (i18) and to be able to deal with the variations in deposits: “Every project is a little bit different and there is no one answer that suits all cases” (i12).  Experience in both open pit and underground mine styles as well as a mix of single and multi-element commodities is recommended, with an emphasis in having sufficient “mining related experience” (i18) as this is the only way to “understand the business implications” (i16).  This “coal-faced” (i5) engagement by the Competent Person is expected to be linked to the project being reported: “They have to have direct experience” (i7); “The fundamental geological behaviour of an orebody must be understood” (i16).  This is contrary to a call for independence by some parties: “(The) requirement for independence is totally flawed because independence doesn’t make you a better judge” (i7).  Although “external audits … in some way deals with independence” (i16).

 These experiences contribute to a better understanding of the implications and consequences of providing resource estimates and technical reports to support public declarations.  Competent Persons “realise the consequences of signing a public statement” (i2).  There is recognition among the experts that Competent Persons have attained a level of “professional maturity” (i10) where the Competent Person recognises the gravity of their signature on a consent form with all the underlying “accountability and responsibility” (i1), where responsibility means “knowing the requirements” (i1) and having “the confidence to say ‘I can do this’ ” (i1), while accountability means “understanding the systems and be willing and able to defend your position” (i1).  In this context the Competent Person is able to “understand the bigger picture” (i10) and the “implications of not doing it well” (i10).  There is an emphasis that the Competent Person needs to “understand the scale and ramifications” (i16) of the estimate, its classification and the eventual public release.  They have the experience and exposure to understand the implications and know “what could go wrong” (i7).  The expectation is that the Competent Person is the “custodian of the orebody” (i16).

 Core to professional maturity is the opportunity to learn through exposure, reflection and “experience in making mistakes” (i7).  There is much emphasis on having “the time to experience the existence and consequences … of decisions, because that is where you grow” (i16).  “By staying in one place I got to apply the lessons from mistakes I’ve made.” (i15).  “I learnt what to do next time and got a chance to avoid them” (i15).  Unfortunately, “(t)hese days it seems that people are transient” (i16) and “because there is a shortage of people, we seem to keep promoting too quickly” (i16).  “I’ve seen enough rubbish to suggest 5 years is not enough, especially if it’s fragmented” (i17).  “If you move around you never get the chance to … make a mistake, fix it and apply the fix so you can perform to expectation” (i15).  This suggests the Competent Person’s work experience should include a long enough stint at an operation that allows them to make mistakes, learn the consequences, correct and experience the consequence of the improvement.  Reconciliation between estimate and production provides a concrete process to learn from estimation mistakes. 

 Whilst the initial process may be formal: “Relevant training and experience are the building blocks, and you need a lot of this until you get to a certain point” (i12). There is an expectation of the Competent Person to engage in continuous competency development: “A good Competent Person does not rest on their previous knowledge, but is constantly testing their own knowledge.  It’s all part of continuous professional development” (i12) and “You have to learn for yourself; you have to ask questions and find your answers” (i12). Competent Persons “should feel comfortable to ask questions” (i16) so they can “keep up with best practice” (i2).

 A deliberate process of exposure and support is reminiscent of the preparation usually provided in the form of an apprenticeship:   “It is important in my mind that the person has actually progressively been exposed to resource estimation.  Starting with boots on the ground understanding the distribution of the commodity and how it behaves; progressively exposed to all aspects.  There needs to be mentoring before one can stand on one’s own two feet” (i3).    

 The support may be through deliberate training programs that may or may not include deliberate structured responsibilities.  An expert provided an example of how this apprentice style approach was formalised within his organisation: “Each Competent Person has an understudy and they are included in the workshops so they develop the necessary grounding in the process and a grounding in the value of the entire business” (i8) or through external Competent Persons: “They might just get there, but be thin on experience so as a backstop we support them with external experience to provide the necessary experience” (i6).

 The value of reflection and discussion with others in the industry is important:  “You have to work with peers and with more experienced people” (i1) and be able to “accept robust peer review” (i2).  The sense of peer acceptance plays a major role in whether a person should be deemed competent:  “Internal to our company, some may comply with the requirements, but there is a level of discussion with their peers that know them as to whether they are actually competent” (i6).  “They should be able to put their arguments to peer opinion” (i6).  “A Competent Person also needs to be recognised by their peers, so they need to publish and sign off on resources.  They have to demonstrate their expertise” (i12).  Peer review provides opportunity to demonstrate “critical thinking” (i2).  Exposing ideas through publication and peer review provides opportunity to build confidence in one’s technical work.  There is an element of practice and reflection, as well as a sense of developing communication skills through the experience of sharing interpretations, ideas and having to justify positions. 

 An ability to communicate to a wide range of mining professionals becomes important in understanding and conveying technical and business consequences and associated risks.  Experts agree Competent Persons “need to be able to present reports” (i11) and, by publishing papers and writing reports, Competent Persons “demonstrate their expertise” (i12).  Moreover, reports provide evidence of a person’s competency: “You can tell very often by reading a report … The competency will show in the way they defend their Resource” (i13).  So “three aspects (necessary for individual competence are) “technical, business and communication” (i17).      

 Ultimately, a willingness to stand before one’s peers translates to a reliance on individuals to self-assess their competency accurately:   “In practice the (peer) test is not applied, so the onus is on the individual to self-assess.  I doubt anyone could actually ask their peers if they are competent” (i3).   “(I)t’s a judgment call an individual makes – a self-assessment type process” (i6) and “Even with relevant experience does the person themself feel confident to take on the role?” (i6).  “The fact that you have worked on similar projects and it gives you confidence to say “I understand the system.  I can take this on” (i1).  Notably, it reduces to “more a case of confidence than competence” (i3).  However, self-confidence and competence are not interchangeable. 

 Given the enormity of capability required, Competent Persons will inevitably rely on contributions from teams.  However, for this team approach to work, Competent Persons “must have experiences in leading a team, because it’s hard to imagine anyone having all the skills required of a Competent Person as they have to demonstrate an understanding of all the different components that go into developing a resource statement, and have done all of them at some stage in their career” (i2).  This suggests an important requirement for Competent Person to have exposure across the mine value chain to be able to evaluate and comment on the risks associated with the classified resource estimate they sign off on.     

 Therefore, according to industry experts, the notion of Competency extends beyond the standard JORC Code criteria and includes:

  1. Expectations of more than five years’ experience,
  2. An emphasis on the quality of the competent person’s experience, including depth and breadth and engagement with a range of geological contexts, and

  3. A component of engaged exposure under the guidance of experienced mentors and peers, and continual competency development.

In addition, experts warn of a risk of over-confidence when resource geologists self-assess their competency.