No Change, No Future

Jens Ismar, CEO of Western Bulk.
Jens Ismar, CEO of Western Bulk.

Published Sep 29, 2018 9:45 PM by Jens Ismar

Digitization, blockchain, AI, and tech in shipping are on everybody's lips these days. These topics seem to have almost displaced autonomous vessels as the topic du jour for suppliers and trade media. But as with autonomous ships, the realities and practicalities of introducing new tech ideas into an organization or business model are far from straightforward and do not provide immediate returns on investment. There is always a transition phase. So how will tech change a typical shipping-related business?  

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Overseeing a leading organization, every day you are afraid of missing the boat, being left by the wayside by new advancements. A core responsibility of senior management is to look ahead and to be prepared to move the company in the right direction. This has always been the case, and one sentence we have repeated for years internally is a slogan at the DSME shipyard we saw many years ago: “No change no future.”

But one major problem every business faces is “you don’t know what you don’t know!” This is especially an issue in the shipping industry where bringing in new ideas is particularly hard. Indeed, at a strategic level, this is one of the biggest commercial risks the industry faces when it comes to technology. Too often a prerequisite being involved in shipping is, well, being involved in shipping. If shipping companies want to make the most of tech opportunities, we need to bring in outside ideas and people – people who will shake things up because they bring in new skills and don’t necessarily understand how it’s always been done. 

But how many shipping organizations are prepared to do this? How many are prepared to teach someone the ropes and to give them time to develop ideas and that are counter to the status quo? How many are willing to accept an outsiders’ views as being legitimate and to take the risk of implementation? Because if you’re not prepared to do this, digital transformation becomes a very hard task. 

Where Are the Digital Gains?

With digitalization and cloud our ability to handle more information, faster and to change processes is accelerating at a rapid rate. Hence digitalization is not a buzzword, but a very tangible outcome for our business—a business based on information and risk management.  But is this all really new? Yes and no.

The improved ability to handle large amounts of information quickly and cheaply is new. But our people working systematically with information is not new, certainly not for us at Western Bulk. A core part of our business for more than 10 years has been our Risk Management system that has been an integrated part of our day-to-day work and corporate DNA. With our business model the ability to work with systems and numbers has been, and is, crucially important. We recognize that to stay ahead we must embrace new technology every day, and we welcome the ability to do this more efficiently, at a scale unimagined just a few years ago.

Many companies are pushing these initiatives and trying to make sense out of the potential of these new systems and support. There is no doubt this will influence the industry going forward but the challenge will be to combine the old way with new support technologies to extract real value and not get lost. We cannot, and should not, forget the people side of the shipping business, but we can give our people better systems and tools to do their jobs, and recognize that the digitization of shipping is exciting and not something to be afraid of. 

Jens Ismar is CEO of Western Bulk.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.