Responsibilities of companies have increased. In order to gain and maintain a 'social licence to operate' minerals companies must work to mitigate negative social and environmental impacts as well as maximise benefits for both the company and local communities. Many minerals companies now position engagement, dialogue and participation with local communities and other stakeholders as key mechanisms for achieving a social licence. Consequently, community relations has emerged as an increasingly important strategic consideration, key organisational function and emerging occupational speciality at many minerals operations throughout the world.
Surprisingly little research has been undertaken about people employed by minerals companies to do community relations work at the operational level. The perspective of community relations practitioners seems hidden amongst broader debates about progress towards sustainable development. The thesis was designed to capture the practitioner perspective, particularly in the context of the practice challenges they face, and organisational factors influencing their work.
As a critical management research project, both 'resistance' postmodernism as well as critical theory informed the thesis. Power was placed at the core of analysis and discourse used as a key theoretical and analytical concept. Methodologically, data was collected inside minerals operations using ethnographic methods of participant observation and in-depth 'active' interviewing. Seven community relations practitioners were shadowed in their workplaces in Australia and New Zealand to observe and talk to them about their work.
The research findings illuminated community relations work as full of tension and dilemma, always complex and sometimes even contradictory. A set of 18 key practice tensions, which emerged inductively from the data through thematic analysis, were articulated and analysed. Analysis found that practitioners were best served when they did not ignore one side of a tension at the expense of the other. The notion of ambidexterity, which literally means 'double handed', emerged as an enabling force in community relations work.
A plethora of other organisational factors that enabled and/or constrained community relations work were found at the level of culture, structure, administration and also the practitioner-level. Some of the key findings included that: the notion of discursive ambidexterity was an important enabling force, particularly when elevated beyond the level of the practitioner to the organisation; discursive closure, reflected through a common dominant management culture, was a pervasive and cumulative constraint; the limited level of authority afforded to community relations practitioners was constraining, although practitioners who mobilised an awareness of internal power dynamics as a resource to influence and avoid 'blockers', were more enabled. The thesis also questions the mantra of 'embedding' community considerations into core business, as well as traditional notions of professionalisation, in relation to actualising the principles of sustainable development.