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January/February 2019

Networks, workforce development and resilience

Industry networks are surprisingly fragile, and Australia’s chemical industries are no exception. Tom Spurling and colleagues explain the importance of social network analysis.

The change came down ‘like a garage door’, according to Chris Such. ‘All of that international network disappeared instantly in 1997. Instantly.’ Chris, who joined Dulux in 1976 and rose to be the New Technology Manager of Dulux Australia, was commenting on the day that the international giant ICI PLC sold its Australian interests to the new company Orica. It was a lifetime’s worth of collaborations – gone.‘So one of my jobs was to rebuild’, said Such. ‘We didn’t have an external, international network because we were just here in Australia. This is the headquarters for the world, for Dulux Australia. So it was “How do you protect the future?” and that was about getting out and about and building some external networks, consider what the killer ideas we needed were, and how we were going to get there. So it’s that blend of internal versus external, you know, a classic partnership-sort of model, given that we didn’t have international collaborators so it would move heavily towards Australian-based collaborators.’

Chris Such’s insights illustrate an important characteristic of social networks of collaboration. They take a lot of time and effort to establish but can disappear or be destroyed very quickly. All companies have networks of suppliers, customers and technology providers. Who companies collaborate with is heavily dependent on the technology underpinning their business. Then it is about personal relationship management. Who is good at what the company needs and where are they?

Such’s story points to a bigger picture – one in which Australia’s chemical industry sector is contracting in the face of lower cost of manufacture in emerging economies, improved transportation, free trade, and the globalisation of many industries. Despite these pressures, high-value chemical products produced in Australia are used in global and domestic supply chains, and are poised to meet increasing demand from these markets. It remains the second largest manufacturing industry in Australia and provides industry ‘value-add’ of about $12 billion. It supplies inputs to 109 of the country’s 111 industries. Moreover, contraction is not inevitable, with comparable advanced economies learning to swim upstream. Germany hosts three of the top-10 chemical companies in the world. Switzerland, with a smaller population and higher average wages, consistently ranks near the top of OECD tables for chemistry. Given the importance of the chemical industries to our economic, environmental and social wellbeing, a key question is whether Australia can follow suit over the coming decades. What will make the difference?

One of Australia’s wellsprings of resilience is our well-educated workforce. Our educational resources put us at a distinct advantage in identifying and developing new high-value niches. Accordingly, in its strategic roadmap, the national body for Australia’s plastics and chemicals industries, Chemistry Australia, noted ‘skilled and productive talent’ as one of the sector’s fundamental needs. Australia needs to be able to leverage this human capital, by combining it with social capital – our ability to make the most of our social ties to others. Importantly, the resilience of the sector is not just about personal expertise of individual chemists – it’s about how many forms of expertise are combined and recombined in innovative ways. Confronting challenges together, not merely side-by-side. Connecting ideas and expertise – just as Chris Such suggests – is a way forward. Understanding what makes the chemical industries resilient means understanding the many ways in which people are connected to one another through cooperation, coordination and competition.

But with so many types of criss-crossing, complex social connections all around us, where do we look first? Where do we try to make a difference? Networks of collaboration and exchange tell a particularly important story within the chemical industry because of its unique supply chain position. The chemical industry supplies Australia’s industries through its 5500 businesses, small, medium and large. Each of these companies needs to develop and maintain networks with their own suppliers, their customers and their technology providers. These technology providers might be another company, CSIRO or a university.

Understanding the nature of these networks, how they are initiated, maintained and expanded, and how they link up players with different resources, skills and priorities, is part of the program of the new ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for the Chemical Industries (ATCI). ATCI aims to foster a world-class environment of transformative innovative research in Australia’s chemical and advanced manufacturing industry through sustained partnerships with universities. ATCI will link leaders from the chemical industries and peak industry bodies with research and teaching academics from the three partner universities. The centre will harness this combined expertise to lay foundations for transformative changes to industry training and research translation.

At a more hands-on level, ATCI is making fundamental moves to change the current research training landscape by establishing a new model of industry-led graduate research. The newly established Masters of Industrial Research (MIR) (Chemistry), offered at the University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales, meets the demand from the sector for short, nimble research projects that are industry-relevant, with shorter timeframes than a typical PhD project, with a supportive and flexible IP arrangement at each university. Developed in close consultation with both Chemistry Australia and leading employers in the industry, this two-year course will allow graduates to develop employable skills and attributes while running a significant research project with a chemical company. Usually hosted at the company site, students will work hands-on with company staff as an industrial R&D chemist, for a minimum of 12±months. In developing their research projects, the students will have access to the expertise and facilities of the university research groups associated with the Centre. As part of the MIR, students will also enjoy wide resources for up-skilling that are designed to suit their specific project and professional development needs, including a range of online and on-campus elective course offerings delivered by the universities in partnership with the industry host.

Research themes within ATCI include Innovations in Advanced Materials and Process Chemistry and New Approaches to Medicinal and Biochemical Chemistry (see table). Underpinning these are developments in the fields of analytical chemistry and material characterisation. A range of techniques will be available through this program, including NMR, IR and Raman spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, scanning and transmission electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction and atomic force microscopy.

Importantly, a further theme of ATCI is understanding the importance of social networks. In this regard, the role of Swinburne University of Technology in ATCI in social network analysis affords ATCU a fine-grained look into its own social structure, and a unique vantage point on the impact of ATCI activities ( These networks can be person-to-person, group-to-group or company-to-company, and represent various forms of advice, trust and collaboration, to name just a few possibilities. Social network analysis permits the mapping of social connections.

The graphic presents a network visualisation (or map) of the connectivity of leading international researchers in laboratories around the world who are working within the field of controlled living/radical polymerisation. The network data comes from interviews with key researchers in which they were asked about their advice-seeking on technical issues related to their work on this topic. Each colour within the network represents a different international laboratory – of which there are many in this network. What we can clearly see is that there is strong advice-seeking within laboratories, but that technical advice-seeking connects these research labs around the world. It is this sharing of knowledge that offers advantages to the overall ecosystem.

Visualisation is highly useful, but not always the best way to investigate a network. It is possible to move beyond simply drawing network maps, and use statistical models for social networks to investigate the structure and implications of these networks. Which people are most sought out as experts in the field? Who are the key brokers that join this network together? Which laboratories are the most central (and thus most connected and influential) in this advice-seeking network?

Swinburne has world-leading capacity in social network analysis, providing statistical techniques to understand social networks with models that allow us to go beyond visualising networks. As part of ATCI, Swinburne researchers will use social network analysis tools to understand networks in the context of the chemical industries. Importantly, a key issue that the ARC Training Centre hopes to understand is how networks affect collaboration and knowledge transfer between industry and academia, and how we can develop effective networks moving into the future.

The ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for the Chemical Industries is led by the University of Melbourne in collaboration with the University of New South Wales, Swinburne University of Technology and Chemistry Australia and partners CSIRO, Dulux, PPG, DCS Technical and Qenos. Further information is available at

Tom Spurling FRACI CChem, Colin Gallagher and Dean Lusher are at Swinburne University of Technology Centre for Transformative Innovation. Tim Davey MRACI is at Dulux Australia and Chris Such is recently retired from Dulux Australia.

Understanding what makes the chemical industries resilient means understanding the many ways in which people are connected to one another ...
... ATCI is making fundamental moves to change the current research training landscape by establishing a new model of industry-led graduate research.
... there is strong advice-seeking within laboratories, but technical advice-seeking connects these research labs around the world.

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