Impact Blog

Through a glass darkly – an industrialist’s point of view

August 2020
John McGagh
Investor, Board Advisor, Director, Former Head of Innovation Rio Tinto and Chair of the ACOLA Research Training Review

As an Executive with significant global experience working in, and with, Executive teams and Boards to deliver at-scale business improvement through the successful implementation of innovative change, John McGagh’s perspectives on what helps success in industry innovation environments is surely a clearer view than many.

I am not a researcher and do not have a doctorate, however, it has been my pleasure to work with a wide spectrum of talented researchers throughout my career. Whilst I am an engineer by education, I am deeply respectful of all disciplines including the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts.

This my first blog and it shares my reflections on experiences gained when sitting inside a large corporation which at that time was committed to increasing the tempo of technology adoption; the company was Rio Tinto and I was serving as the Head of Innovation.

Transitioning research into the industrial world is something that the Rio Tinto Innovation group managed, we were successful in some areas and less successful in other areas. This blog will concentrate on the “light and dark” and some human-centric skills that I have seen help with success.

The industrial world is one focussed on delivery of tangible outcomes against a set of expectations and norms through teamwork; teams are the essence of the way operations are run and I hold true that great teams can achieve great things.

When viewed from the outside industry looks very hierarchal, I can confirm that it is because of the way they need to organise for work to be carried out. However, from my experience the human-centric skills of influencing, negotiation and communications are some of the most powerful tools that enable teams to “get things done” inside a large business. This is especially the case when one wants to initiate change and adoption of new ways of doing things – needless to say this is really important when seeking to transition research into real world impact.

Building on this, I do believe that the research community could be equipped to deliver best impact if the learned skills of influencing, negotiation and communications can be developed during both the undergraduate and post graduate University experience. It is true that some people are naturally gifted in these skills; however, these skills can be taught.

My innovation team were all trained in negotiation and influencing, and as part of their working life and communication was an expected part of the way they carried out their daily work within the Innovation group. Importantly these skills framed the way they interacted with our customers in the operations.

We all interact with customers; I feel sure this will be the case within the research community and also within University life, hence my argument for developing enhanced skills in influencing, negotiation and communications.

Research is an opaque, crowded and confusing field when looking for innovations to be potentially used in an industrial setting. But perhaps I can unpack my views on that another time.

Photo by Michael on Unsplash


Alastair McEwan says:

This article raises some interesting questions about the way in which we develop graduate researchers. As John indicates the arts of influencing, negotiation and communication skills that can be taught via professional development programs but it is also the case that they can be developed indirectly through the teamwork and other transactions that occur during the PhD journey – but I do wonder how often a PhD student is encouraged to reflect on the capabilities that they have developed.

Paige Maguire says:

Great comment Alistair – this is one of the key gaps we see often with our doctoral students. That is, identification/ reflection on skills developed, evidencing of these skills and articulation / application into other contexts. Many times I have asked HDR students to tell me their top 3 non-discipline related skills they have developed during candidature and they all generally stopped dead in their tracks by this question. However, when I ask them to unpack some of the skills they needed to use or develop during parts of their project, placement experiences and other roles they have undertaken, they quickly start to realise the professional skills they have developed. I believe that scaffolding of this evidencing is really critical for their future employability.

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