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Shipping chiefs urged to take lead in digital transformation

SHIPPING leaders must take leadership in the journey towards a digital future for maritime, according to speakers on a Lloyd’s List webinar, sponsored by Wärtsilä Marine, on “Taking the next steps in digital transformation.” 

If instead they choose to delegate responsibility to advisors, such as their chief digital officers or technology providers, executives will be missing golden opportunities to transform the way their businesses operate. 

They should “focus on the business opportunity itself rather than on the technology [and] concentrate on their knowledge of the business,” said Wärtsilä Marine’s Business Development Director Mauro Sacchi. 

“Many executives are uncomfortable with technical jargon [such as the term ‘bandwidth’] because they didn’t grow up with it,” he said. Nevertheless, future leaders will need to master the opportunities offered by digitalisation to change commercial practices, rethink the way partners co-operate, and recraft the business model. 

The drive to secure positive revenue should be the impetus for change, not technology, Mr Sacchi said. 

The key decisions to be made are what technology you need, why you need it, and how you will use it, said Despina Panayiotou-Theodosiou, chief executive of Tototheo Maritime. “The first decision should not be ‘let’s digitalise just for the sake of it’.”

Digitalisation is about finding the tools that will help to improve the business model, she said.  

Data is information that leads to intelligence, decision-making, and improvement, she explained. “Continual improvement, not turning a caterpillar into a butterfly.” 

“You are not capturing efficiency at a higher level if you only look at the ship.” Mauro Sacchi

Dr Theo Mourouzis, who advises businesses in mapping their operation and shows how digital solutions can improve the way they work, says senior management ``must be the very first'' to embrace this.

“Digital tech must not be seen as separate: it is used to support, enhance and improve business,”  he said.

So, the first step to be taken by senior executives should not involve investment in technology or even analysing the many different platforms available. Rather there should be a long, hard look at the business model, understanding the trends of the maritime industry, and seeking ways to work more collaboratively with partners. 

This won’t be easy. “We are moving towards a collaboration model that shipping has not been used to,” warned Despina Panayiotou-Theodosiou. “Technology providers must help businesses to look at the industry afresh and to make solutions available to them.” The process should start with the industry itself, she said. 

Mauro Sacchi believed that while larger and better-resourced businesses have been able to experiment for the sake of pure innovation, there’s still a good prospect for agile smaller and medium-sized businesses seizing niche opportunities that larger corporations miss.  

All speakers emphasised the continuing critical importance of the human element throughout the digital journey.

In order to stay ahead as digital transformation rolls out, Theo Mourouzis stressed the importance of combining in-house training with regular injections of external intelligence from experts who are keeping up with what’s happening elsewhere. The most engaged businesses will develop a hybrid human resource structure, he predicted. 

“We must train people to be both self-sufficient and technically-literate, so that they know how to respond to change,” said Despina Panayiotou-Theodosiou. “Onboard, seafarers will become high-quality systems operators with full awareness of emergency responses.”  

The industry talks about autonomous ships, however: “Our focus should also be on autonomous staff.”

The next step, said Mr Sacchi, is expanding the picture to show the context for operation.

“Efficiency in the engine room is basic for Wärtsilä; so then take it at the level of the vessel,'' he said. ``But the vessel doesn’t operate in a stand-alone way: operations are influenced by traffic, weather, loading and discharging, distractions to the schedule while in port that creates inefficiencies. You are not capturing efficiency at a higher level if you only look at the ship.” 

“The industry talks about autonomous ships. Our focus should also be on autonomous staff.” Despina Panayiotou-Theodosiou

Even so, data analytics is an ongoing exercise, said Theo Mourouzis: new algorithms will come in, adding better ways to tackle inefficiencies.   

This, in turn, brings a new challenge, said Despina Panayiotou-Theodosiou. The decision moves from which technologies should shipping businesses select to enable them to leverage the efficiencies of the transport network, to how technology businesses can be encouraged to deepen their understanding of the various maritime business models so they can provide the most useful platforms.  

“Maritime companies have an advantage over technology companies coming into shipping,” she observed, “because they know their business.” 

Start-ups bring new solutions, many of which do work, but shipping remains a relationship industry, she said. “This is not to discourage start-ups but to help them see they need to look at shipping in a different way… Coming in with a disruptive agenda won’t work.” 

Alongside engaging with senior executives in understanding the needs of the maritime business model, and with their staff in training in how to use digital technology to improve operations, speakers picked out the importance of elements of the technology itself. 

“Smaller maritime businesses should embrace technology rather than fear it.” Dr Theo Mourouzis

Charterers’ and shippers’ role in moving cargo will see them becoming even more engaged with digitalisation, even more so as faster and reliable communications become the norm. Meanwhile, the value of implementing standardisation of technology will become clear, not least in keeping the tech providers in check. But standardisation shouldn’t be “so rigorous that it kills innovation”. 

Speakers agreed that smaller maritime businesses should embrace technology rather than fear it.

The leaders of these businesses should be driving the discussion more than they appear to be.

Because, while larger companies have taken all the headlines with their innovation projects, plenty of opportunities will open up for agile businesses able to use digital technology to improve efficiency, reduce fuel consumption, and work more collaboratively. 

This is not a race to show technological prowess; instead technology is an enabler, a tool that will require training at sea and on shore. Speakers concluded that digitalisation can indeed be a gamechanger for shipping companies brave enough to make the effort to make it work for them. 

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