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Interview: The lost art of conversation

tracey radford cropped

Small conversations are where the real nuggets are, according to new chair of the Engineering Group of the Geological Society Tracey Radford.

It is all about to kick off for Tracey Radford who became the chair of the Engineering Group of the Geological Society (Eggs) back in May. After the summer lull, the group is back in action and Radford is keen to tell the industry what the group does.

“It’s surprising that I still get asked what the Engineering Group actually does,” says Radford who will be chair for two years, combining her role with her day job as chief engineering geologist and practice manager at Atkins.

“We are quite quiet in that we don’t shout about what we do,” explains Radford. “We don’t receive any central funding through Geological Society, so we have to generate our own revenue to support our activities and do our own marketing,” she says.

“The recognisable public face of Eggs is the technical meetings and, inparticular, the flagship Glossop Lecture. But we also represent the industry in terms of being the industry interface with the Geological Society and we are the UK National Group of the International Association of Engineering Geologists and Hydrogeologists.

“We also represent the interests of engineering geologists within the wider industry through the Ground Forum and the British Geotechnical Association,” says Radford.

“I want to raise the profile of what we do so that people are aware of how broad we are, and how important we are. We drive industry standards and best practice through our working parties and special publications.”

The latest publication from Eggs is Engineering Geology and Geomorphology of Glaciated and Periglaciated Terrains, which is a weighty tome at over 900 pages representing a culmination of many years’ work.

“People might not realise thatwhat Eggs does has direct implication for how they are working,” says Radford

Where possible, Eggs meetings are streamed live and it has a YouTube channel. “But this does mean we are getting fewer people in to listen and watch the presentations in person and this is a problem,” says Radford.

“We are more connected in terms of reaching out to people through Linkedin and social media, but we aren’t building up meaningful relationships across the industry. To know people and how to really network properly across the industryseems to be a lost art.

“You can sit and watch an eveningtechnical meeting online, but you are missing out on the reflection points which occur afterwards over a cup of tea. I want people to reconnect in person. Online is great if you can’t make a meeting – as a catch up – but we do need to make that extra effort to reconnect in person as much as we can. We need to ‘resocialise’ the group, and the industry, in a holistic and broader way.”

Radford uses the example of the recent Eggs field trip to the Vale of York and Ripon as well as the reintroduced annual conference as the sort of networking she would like to see take place more regularly across the group.

“Conversations were shared across the different generations of people working in the industry, from different companies with different backgrounds, whether contractors, consultants or clients,” she says.

I worry that the industry is so focused on price and programme that we are going to miss something. We cannot be blinkered and assume that engineering disasters don’t happen anymore in the UK. We need to ensure we continue to take the learning from sector to another.

“There was a really good understanding of different perspectives that people could then take away and feed back into their own work. “That is what is missing. It is the sharing of knowledge, the snippets of lessons learnt that we are in danger of missing out on or forgetting. This isn’t helped by the litigious nature of the industry and people being unable to openly present on the near misses and close calls. However people are more willing to share information informally, to offer their advice perhaps from a ‘been there and done that’ perspective.

“People can’t expect to find the answer to everything in a book or through an internet search. Some of the answers will be within conversations and experiences that only talking to people and networking will provide.”

Radford has around 20 months ofher tenure as chair to run and by the end she would like to see more diversity in the membership.

“Looking around at many of thee vents we organise it is clear our demographic isn’t changing quickly,” she says.“I’d like to see more people attending the events in general, but also more diversity of people, and more regional involvement too so we not considered as being London centric.”

But it is not only Eggs that Radford wants to help reach out to the wider industry. She also wants the Geological Society to do so.

People can’t expect to find the answer to everything in a book or through an internet search. Some of the answers will be within conversations and experiences that only talking to people and networking will provide.

“I was chatting to Helen Wollaston, the chief executive of Women into Science and Engineering at an event recently and we realised that the Geological Society was not a member. I was like – hang on – that needs to get changed. It is little things like that need doing to ensure that we are connecting across the industry as much as we can.”

Radford believes that the more people who get involved with Eggs, the more it can achieve.

“Not just as an engineering group, but how we feed into industry and with the bigger challenges,” she says.  “We can have some bigger conversations and not skirt around the issues.“It would be great to get more people participating from the client and contractor side. We already do very well with support from consultants – and we heavily rely o nthem – and links back into academia, but a wider reach within clients and contractors would bring balance to the group,” she suggests.

One thing the group has changed this year is the entry criteria of the Glossop Award. These have been modified to encourage more entries by removing the emphasis on the presentation of a case study but to ask early career engineering geologists to put forward their ideas on a particular theme toe ncourage a thought leadership element. This year there was a digital focus.

“Previously we asked entrants to write an abstract of some work that they had been involved in, which had a wow factor and was shaping our industry,” says Radford. “It was hard and many in their early careers were missing out because they didn’t have the ‘right job’ to present. We are still looking for the shining lights of a future generation.

“The new format took away the need to be working on the right project at the right time which was reflected in an increase in entrants. But we still need to work on the breadth of entrants to get representation from across the different parts of the industry.”

And it is an open environment that Radford really wants to encourage during her tenure. “The industry is being driven into a ‘race to the bottom’,” she says. “Trying to put forward the cheapest and fastest solution. But we need to be mindful as to whether it is the right solution and not all our clients are in the position to be able to know.

“I worry that the industry is so focused on price and programme that we are going to miss something. We cannot be blinkered and assume that engineering disasters don’t happen anymore in the UK. We need to ensure we continue to take the learning from sector to another.

“Over the next few years a number of very experienced people from the baby boomer generation will be retiring from the industry. These are some of the greats who have worked on a wide variety of projects; true generalists of our profession able to apply their trade across the industry. We need to gain the knowledge they have, and it will be in the small conversations where the real nuggets are,” says Radford.

 

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