Human Element is Key to the Digital Formula


Published Dec 4, 2017 8:58 PM by Frank Coles

In all the excitement surrounding the digitalisation of shipping it is easy to overlook the human element. Failing to appreciate and understand properly how people – and by extension organisations – interface with new technology can lead to poor implementation and unnecessary exposure to risk.

Technology has sometimes been described as an ecosystem. This analogy from the natural world is rather apt in a shipping environment struggling to adapt to digitalisation, where at least three species are thriving. First are the ostriches with their heads in the sand who refuse to acknowledge that change is inevitable. Second are the bees buzzing around demanding change but satisfying themselves with the nectar of new technological clichés. Third are the headless chickens that, confused and irritated by the bees, are running around without purpose or direction. What these creatures have in common is an unwillingness to evolve. In the digital context, this might be described as the CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) mentality. The enlightenment needed to find a way out the CAVE will require the background noise is turned down, so that attention can focus on why and how industry must change through practical application.

The creatures dwelling in this maritime ecosystem are stressed by increasingly stringent regulations, unremitting cost pressures and a need to co-exist with more advanced species, which populate the neighbouring habitats of logistics and the global supply chain. Oil majors are loath to charter poorly operated or maintained vessels that may imperil their reputations, while the giant retailers that fulfil consumer desires demand ever greater reliability and transparency. Furthermore, our CAVE-dwellers have begun to worry themselves sick over new viruses – in the form of cyber risks – to which they haven’t developed immunity.

To evolve, maritime organisations must adapt. However, the new, digitalised order will call for more than simply ‘physical’ adaptations in the shape of updated assets – for example the development of safer, greener and more efficient ships. Rather, behavioural changes will be necessary to evolve new operational or business models, shared decision making and greater traffic monitoring and control. These activities interact with and are influenced by technology, but strictly speaking they fall in the domain of ‘the human element’.

For one thing, behavioural adaptations among this human element will be critical to deal with cyber threats because today it is simply a fact that most attacks are facilitated by personnel, whether on ship or land, being duped into allowing rogue code to compromise a vessel or office network. Companies must tackle the problem head on by providing robust training on how to identify the tell-tale signs of an attack and staff, once trained, must exercise vigilance at all times.

The US military is a natural target for cyber-attacks, attracting millions of would-be infiltrators each month, but its systems are seldom compromised. Drawing from the experience of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear fleet, it has found an answer in intense focus on training personnel in risk mitigation. To quote the man in charge of Cyber Command, Admiral Mike Rogers: “It’s about ethos. It’s about culture. How you man, train and equip your organization, how you structure it and the operational concepts that you apply.”

The civil aviation, nuclear power and burgeoning space industries have successfully created High Reliability Organizations (HRO) by maintaining a strict culture of excellence and a commitment to correct deviations before disaster as well as developing a deep awareness of their own vulnerabilities. The maritime industry – whether it knows it or not – currently adopts a higher acceptance risk. This is likely to become less tenable, because no technological fix for cyber risk is fool-proof; the only long-term solution is to reengineer how companies operate.

Of course, creating an HRO takes time. It also requires wholehearted commitment from the organisation’s CEO and management team down. Everyone in the organization must be made accountable. Training and adherence to standards is vital. Simply mouthing platitudes about ISM and some guidelines issued by class or BIMCO is not enough.

In summary, digitalization will provide the maritime sector with a platform to interact with modern e-commerce companies and charterers, which will ensure its survival and continued relevance in the coming decades, at the same time offering the potential to deliver safer, greener and more efficient carrier operations. We should not allow its limitations – primarily its susceptibility to cyber risk – to frighten us away from technology. By investing in the human element, the risks can be managed and our industry too can join the ranks of High Reliability Organizations, whilst reaping the benefits of digital operations.

Frank Coles is the CEO of maritime technology company Transas.

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