Crew welfare has been the traditional driver for connectivity at sea, but as the balance now shifts to operational efficiency, could the real value lie in tapping the ‘global brain’? When might we see the first sea startup? asks Walter Hannemann.
There are around 1.5 million seafarers in the world, split almost 50/50 between officers and ratings. On seagoing vessels in merchant shipping, work assignments last usually for several months at a time, and for long days. Seven days a week.
In recent years, a lot has been said about crew welfare and how important connectivity is.
Communication, either via old-fashioned phone calls or modern online chat has been considered so vital that we even have the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006) stating that ‘reasonable access’ to ship-shore telephone, email and Internet facilities should be provided.
And still there is much to be done, as it’s a moving target – the technology is always advancing and so are the demands from seafarers.
The 2015 Crew Connectivity study from Futurenautics which surveyed over 3,000 seafarers underlined the store that is set by connectivity. 73% of respondents said that the level of crew communications services provided onboard did influence their decisions about which shipping company they worked for. Of the 73% of crew that believed it was important 78% said that it was a strong or very strong influence on which contract they decided to take.
However, with the current long downturn in commercial shipping and shipping companies struggling to make a profit—and the reality is that on the contrary, we see huge losses being reported—it has become the norm to look for savings, everywhere. In consecutive, yearly rounds, savings are being sought in already cut-to-the-bone budgets.
Some smart savings are driven by optimisation and effectiveness; some by blunt budget cuts and others by inconsequential cancelled investments. Yet still several shipping companies are simply going out of business.
The obvious conclusion is that because of this many crew connectivity initiatives have never been funded to the extent required for them to make a real difference, and still more have never even seen the light of day. When one only considers the cost part of the equation then perhaps the lean times the industry is seeing, might be viewed as a justification. But that view is a simplistic one.
A recent study by Intelsat showed that for the first time ship operators are citing operational efficiency above cost cutting and crew welfare as the key drivers for investments in connectivity.
That is an important watershed for shipping, because it indicates that the mindset is changing. Whereas cost cutting and compliance were previously the drivers, now there is value coming into the equation. When we start thinking in value terms then there are other possibilities and opportunities to consider.
Many probably agree that technology, particularly smart infrastructure and systems can not only drive expected efficiencies but also create fertile ground for unforeseen innovation. Systems change the way we work, drive human behaviour, improve processes, allow people to evolve. But one could say that we have been doing that: shipping companies are improving their usage of information technologies in their offices and applications and systems are improving their management practices ashore.
But what about our often overlooked colleagues at sea? To become a master or chief-engineer, one not only needs many years of formal education but also quite a lot of hands-on work and leadership experience. If we put together all the knowledge that the officers and seafarers in general have, being onboard or not, we can agree that it makes for a fantastic, unique volume and quality of knowledge.
To date that knowledge, collectively, remains largely untapped. Knowledge that could be harnessed and multiplied to create a completely new way of doing things. How? By providing people with the platform and the tools required to capture the value.
It’s been proven time and again that companies that adopt newer and more open tools and systems, improve processes and the ways their people can work, also empower their people to be innovative. Such employees also become more successful as a result; are more ready for—and adaptable to—change and new situations, and tackle challenges more effectively.
Imagine what might happen then, if the hundreds of thousands of vessel and shipping experts at sea – the seafarers – had access to modern, connected IT infrastructure and systems? If we gave them Internet connected computers so they could work digitally onboard and open, collaborative frameworks for doing their jobs?
What if they could be in permanent contact with other experts at sea or onshore? What could happen if they could just chat with colleagues around the globe, instantly? What if they could Google solutions for their problems, share troubleshooting tips with others facing the same problems? What if they could join other creative minds in defining the next big thing?
When we think about collaboration it is often in the context of companies co-operating to get to a solution faster than they would otherwise. But many in the industry are inherently suspicious of such collaboration between competitors, even if it may lead to a win-win. On top of that look at the pressure we pile onto senior management in shipping, expecting them to come up with the big idea that will map out the future.
We talk a lot now about how data can be the basis for disruptive ideas, and yet the data and intelligence we have onboard our ships at sea is not being utilised. Given the chance to share their intelligence with each other and across their company, what might they start inventing? Something that changes the way the industry has been working for decades perhaps? The belief that only those in senior management in companies ashore are responsible for coming up with the big ideas misses the point.
The benefit of the connectivity which the world has now is primarily about connecting people and their ideas. There are countless examples of companies who are tapping their corporate and the wider global brain to solve their problems and innovate their way to new digital models and value. It was a young, junior person in Amazon who came up with the idea of Amazon Prime, for example.
How many young seafarers are sitting on disruptive ideas that their companies and colleagues have no idea about, which could be game-changing?
We talk about connecting up systems and equipment on board to save costs, but the collaboration we might unleash by connecting up the people on board could start to deliver value.
Connecting seafarers to their families is only one part of the equation. When we start to connect them to each other to share their ideas a whole new opportunity opens up. Because that’s the path to something I wonder when we’ll be seeing – the first “sea startup”?