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In conversation with Savitha Balu

After working as an engineer for 11 years, Savitha Balu has returned to university to complete a PhD at the Australian National University. Ms Balu recently spoke with The Australian Pipeliner about the research project she is involved in as part of her PhD, which looks at the hierarchical standing of technical experts and safety specialists within their organisation and examines whether they have any real decision-making power.

How did you come to be involved in the research side of the Australian pipeline industry?

My background is in environmental consulting as a graduate engineer and then in environmental engineering in private industry. I thoroughly enjoyed the diverse challenges of my role within the industry as an environmental engineer. I got to work on details of specific technologies, as well as broader overviews through corporate management systems. My favourite work was the oversight of some major environmental impact statements; I had to co-ordinate management strategy with proposed operational objectives while meeting both regulatory requirements and community expectations. Satisfaction and frustration were felt in equal measure while juggling these priorities.

It was this experience that sprung to mind upon first hearing of the Energy Pipelines Cooperative Research Centre’s (CRC’s) RP4-3 project, which is examining the relationship between corporate structure and the influence of technical specialists. RP4-3 is part of Energy Pipelines CRC’s Research Program 4 (RP4), which is looking at ways to educate, modify and manage behaviours in order to maintain best practice and improve public safety and security.

I met Andrew Hopkins, who is the lead supervisor of RP4-3, at the Energy Pipelines CRC launch. This was also my introduction to the Australian pipeline industry and I was quite impressed that an industry group was ready to take on such research challenges.

Walk us through your PhD project; what does it focus on and what are the likely positive outcomes or recommendations for the Australian pipeline industry?

The RP4-3 project looks at the organisational location of technical experts and safety specialists and examines whether they have any real decision-making power within their organisation.

The most critical research outcome is that operational safety activities were found to be widely distributed amongst several divisions of the organisations examined. This is an important indicator. Various organisational dynamics that contributed to, or detracted from, available influence were also analysed. Some simple measures that are based on understanding and effectively designing the structure of an independent operational safety function have been identified through this research.

When will you complete your PhD?

The completion date for my PhD is “˜some time’ next year. It’s hard to be specific about when I will be satisfied that the thesis is at a standard appropriate to submit to the Australian National University (ANU) School of Sociology, which has an international reputation. I graduated as a chemical engineer from Sydney University and the last thesis I wrote was very different – it was a review of waste management audits for my Masters in Engineering Science – and I am determined to show that my technical training doesn’t limit my capacity to expand and to excel in another discipline.

Which of your areas of expertise are being developed from this PhD?

This PhD is developing my ability to interpret, assess and include intuitive data in reasoned arguments and analyses. It is a skill that all technocrats would benefit from developing because, if a judgement call needs to be made, who better to make that call than someone grounded in professional education and experience, who also knows how to analyse and qualify the other issues at hand?

Have you been involved in any practical applications of your research, with relevance to the pipeline industry?

Not yet. It would be very satisfying to have that opportunity, for both personal and professional reasons. There is tremendous potential in the collaboration afforded by the Energy Pipelines CRC, which acts as a bridge between pure academic research and its application in the pipeline industry.

Why is this sort of expertise necessary in the Australian pipeline industry and for its companies?

The Australian pipeline industry, like the entire resources sector, is completely reliant on technical expertise. Regardless of how much the profitability and the productivity of its companies might be improved by commercial and business talent, it is nothing without the core technical professional. It is essential that the expertise that RP4 offers through organisational and behavioural research is appreciated and utilised by the pipeline industry. There are so many known pitfalls in complex technological industries that can be avoided.

As an example, my own research extends from Andrew Hopkins’ work, which suggests that operational safety and discipline can be essentially “˜hardwired’ into organisational structure to protect its priority against production and cost pressures. The commercial paradigm prevalent in organisations is an often unchallenged pressure to conform and this inevitably compromises the independence and integrity that is essential to any specialist or expert input when it must support the organisational agenda. This is an important bias to recognise.

What do you think will be your plan when you complete your PhD? Are you looking to further develop your broader knowledge in the industry?

My favourite recommendation to organisational leadership, as well as to technical experts is for “˜more communication, more co-operation and less compromise’. I’d like to develop my broader knowledge of the industry while I develop that theme. This is not just a mantra, it’s backed up by the experiences and expertise of approximately 30 technical specialists and safety managers about how various organisational dynamics have impacted their own work. The various measures suggested could be developed and implemented in a corporate environment.

Are you involved in any associations within the Australian pipeline industry?

No. I am totally new to the pipeline industry and to the resources sector and, since joining the Energy Pipelines CRC, I have been kept busy learning how to be an ANU sociologist.

What are your interests outside of research and development in the industry?

Outside the industry, I like talking to my children, reading books and building IKEA furniture. Outside of research and development but still within the industry, I maintain an interest in environmental and risk management based on my training. It is also a skill that has been well-honed by my children!

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