If you’re walking through the main concourse at London’s King’s Cross station you might notice that there’s what appears to be half a luggage trolley sticking out of the wall.
For those parents like me who have been subjected to every one of the Harry Potter franchise movies—more than a few times—this requires no explanation. But for all you others, here it is.
Harry Potter is a fictional boy wizard whose journey to his magical boarding school begins each term at a secret, magical platform at King’s Cross station. The existence of Platform 9¾—for that is its nomenclature—is known only to wizarding folk who gain access to it by running headlong with their luggage trolleys, into the brick wall between platforms 9 and 10.
The idea that there is a platform that’s connected to the station not by footbridge or staircase but by unshakeable belief that you can walk through a brick wall captured the imagination of children worldwide. And, never ones to miss an opportunity to fleece those children’s parents for a piece of nasty merchandise made by other far less fortunate children in factories halfway across the world, the Harry Potter machine has opened a shop in King’s Cross, and stuck half a luggage trolley in the wall next to it.
For most kids the idea that someone wouldn’t know all about platform 9¾ and its significance is kind of mystifying. It’s where the adventure always starts. Where the magic begins. If you can’t get onto the platform then you’re going to get left behind.
In a nutshell that’s what I told Splash 24/7 at the end of last year when they asked me for my predictions for the shipping industry in 2017. That the coming year would see the new platforms emerge from which the industry would begin its digital transformation journey in earnest. I’m the first to admit that I’m not right about everything—don’t tell my husband that—but on this I am right, and as Sam Chambers of Splash 24/7 reflected last month, I’ve been proven right far faster than even he anticipated.
A brief look at the headlines—from DNV GL’s Veracity platform, to Maersk and Alibaba, Cargill and Amazon—has earned me my futurist chops this year so far, but this is only the beginning. Because under the skin of this is a far bigger platform, and the digital initiatives you’re seeing appear in shipping now are all built on and driven by it.
That platform is a computing platform, and in the paradigm of numbered platforms it follows number one—the mainframe computer system; and number two—the client/server system. So you will be unsurprised to hear it’s called the third platform. But its power and its reach may be somewhat more of a surprise.
There are four pillars holding up this platform—perhaps five—and you’ll have heard of all of them. I’ve referred to the SMAC technologies before, and they are one and the same. Social, Mobile, Analytics (including Big Data) and Cloud are the established foundations, but there is debate over whether the Internet of Things (IoT) is another pillar, or an accelerator.
Speak to Gartner and they’ll tell you that the IoT is one of the pillars, because the endpoints of the IoT form part of the Intelligent Digital Mesh that’s generated by this new paradigm. And the Intelligent Digital Mesh (IDM) is really significant.
Digital is about information and the Intelligent Digital Mesh is essentially the information of everything. Businesses have always dealt with data, and they are now getting to grips with much bigger data, but the key to understanding where we’re going is that data isn’t just getting bigger, it’s getting less structured.
Right now today approximately 90 per cent of all business data—that’s 35 zettabytes—is unstructured. That’s because digital technologies allow companies to have digital online connections to end-customers, employees, assets and products wherever those individuals, assets or devices are.
“An intelligent digital mesh is emerging to support the future of digital business and its underlying technology platforms and IT practices,” explains Gartner. “The mesh focuses on people and the Internet of Things (IoT) endpoints, as well as the information and services that these endpoints access.”
Essentially what the mesh does is to exploit the connections between the exponentially growing number of endpoints, whether they are individuals, companies, content, devices, services or solutions. What it can deliver and enable are a whole new set of digital business outcomes.
The reason it’s intelligent refers to the increasing need for AI driven interfaces and automation which is necessary to manage the data chaos we’ve unleashed. The IDM is enabled by digital models, and by business platforms. Exploiting the IDM requires the development of platforms and rich, intelligent services which support digital business.
I’ve written and spoken at length about the fact that technology is becoming embedded in absolutely everything, and how digital products and services are different as a result. They need to be developed, secured, marketed, sold and supported differently too. Platforms are a major part of the equation. They are generated by, and complementary to, third platform digital infrastructure.
AI and machine learning, blockchains, digital twins, wearables, augmented and mixed reality and conversational AI interfaces are all going to accelerate the way that we continue to merge the physical and digital worlds, and profoundly change how we manage and interact with it and each other. All of these things will support digital business initiatives in the future, and most will do so via platforms.
That’s the case for most industries, but in shipping where the overwhelming majority of businesses are SMEs it’s even more likely. That’s because there simply isn’t the expertise or infrastructure to allow most companies to access these new technologies and capture the value from them otherwise.
It’s for this reason that the platforms emerging in shipping and maritime now are going to shape the future. Not just because they represent the focus of opportunity for the growing Digital Transformation—or DX—Economy in shipping, but also because they indicate where the strategic thinking has been going on. Where investments have been made already, where expertise has been gained and where the exponential path is being trodden.
But platforms are incredibly important for another reason. They come in all sorts of flavours, Information system platforms support back office operations such as ERP, core systems, and associated middleware and development capabilities to deliver solutions.
Customer experience platforms support the main customer-facing elements, portals, multichannel commerce, and customer apps. Analytics and intelligence platforms—increasingly critical—will deliver information management and analytics capabilities, enabling data-driven decision making and automating discovery and action. IoT platforms will connect physical assets for monitoring, optimisation, control and monetisation, integrating with core and operational technology systems.
But what’s really pertinent here is the business ecosystem platform, one which supports and connects external ecosystems and marketplaces via API management, community, and enterprise-grade security. Because business in the future will be about ecosystems, not industries, and platforms are where ecosystems begin.
What’s needed are platforms which enable both interoperability and differentiation, security and responsiveness. With disruptive technologies moving horizontally across vertical markets the battleground is likely to shift to ecosystem versus ecosystem.
Opportunities for growth are going to increasingly be found outside of an organisation’s ‘core’ business. TCS’s Frank Diana has outlined an Ecosystem Maturity Model that charts the progression towards the kind of collaborative future business landscape that looks pretty inevitable.
At the entry level partners co-operate and are ‘platform-aware’, before moving to collaborating on tasks incorporating narrow use of ecosystems and becoming ‘platform-oriented’. As the model matures it moves towards business model collaboration involving the broad usage of ecosystems which are ‘platform-enabled’.
The fourth stage involves ecosystem model integration where ecosystem thinking and behaviour dominate leading to business becoming ‘platform-centric.’ The fifth and final iteration is what Diana calls Value Integration, where a finite set of ecosystems dominate, the traditional industry evaporates and business becomes ‘platform-ubiquitous’ powered by a general purpose technology platform (GPTP).
There is a lot of discussion about collaboration, crowdsourcing and tapping the global brain. What we’re really talking about is extracting and sharing information and intelligence. Integrating with our partners, customers, employees, competitors, regulators, suppliers and the end-consumer has to underpin that at a technology level. From platform to ecosystem the enabler of that at a technology level is the third platform and the digital mesh.
That’s why the platforms that emerge this year are crucial, because it is around them that we will see the nascent ecosystems form. Those ecosystems are what the shipping and maritime industry will eventually become, so the companies that lead the way will be the companies which own the future.
The emergence of these platforms is, I believe, the green shoots of recovery for shipping. They are the first signs of how and where the digital future could blossom, and the first step towards turning shipping’s winter of discontent into a summer of love. Ecosystems create interdependent, collaborative operations and contagious accountability around products, services and industries.
The digital ecosystems developing now are going to dominate everything you do in the future, from the way ships and companies are regulated—much more on smart regulation and how we beat the bureaucratic singularity next time—to how they are evaluated for lending, insurance cover and—critically—as suppliers to the charterers who pay the bill.
So this is an huge opportunity for growth, but it’s also the beginning of a battle for survival. That’s why I told Splash 24/7 that the companies who dominate the industry today are unlikely to be the ones who dominate in the future. Because the important expertise—in digital technology deployment and management, platform operation and ecosystem thinking—isn’t in shipping companies. In fact the vast majority have fallen at the very first hurdle.
Remember back a thousand words or so when I was talking about digital business? Here’s what I said, “digital technologies allow companies to have digital online connections to end-customers, employees, assets and products wherever those individuals, assets or devices are.” Now the third platform is considered by most companies to be the foundation. That’s because it doesn’t even occur to most companies that you wouldn’t have invested in enterprise-grade, as-fast-and-reliable-as-you-can-afford connectivity to absolutely every endpoint, sensor or other source of data and therefore value-creation, you have access to.
That’s the absolute, non-negotiable, no-brainer enabling requirement that’s frankly so blindingly obvious that it would be infantile to reference it.Except that in shipping it’s very often missing.
I’m going to trot out a stat you’ve heard from me before, we should probably update it, but it’s still worth your time. A few years ago the average Inmarsat customer spent less than 1 per cent of their operating budget on connectivity. Think about that, and then think about what that means for shipping companies and ship managers and their ability to compete in the digital mesh and ecosystem environment of the future.
Without connectivity to their largest assets, key people, equipment, cargo, customers, lenders, insurers—the list goes on—it’s the equivalent of sending them into battle with both hands tied behind their backs. And cutting their legs off for good measure.
And who are they up against? On the one side there’s Amazon, Uber, Alibaba, Cargill—huge, well-resourced companies with clear digital intent; and on the other lean, technology-centric, hungry start-ups with passion and vision for what could be, ready and able to access these platforms and scale fast. What we now call the shipping industry is just where the platform happens to be located. But the destination isn’t shipping, it’s owning one of the new ecosystems it will become.
I don’t believe it’s any accident that J K Rowling chose to create Harry Potter’s magical platform at King’s Cross between platforms 9 and 10. Because there’s a much older story about what lies under those platforms.
Boudicca was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire around AD 60, and was slaughtered for her trouble. Legend has it that her body lies somewhere under those platforms at King’s Cross.
Stories are often built on top of stories, leveraging and amplifying the layers of meaning and impact as they go, and technology operates in exactly the same way. The third platform is the latest iteration but we’re already talking about the fourth, and thanks to the exponential growth of computing power, what we’re really doing is moving from the third to the sixth, then the twelfth, and so on.
That’s at the heart of my advice to shipping and maritime businesses to make the strategic investments into third platform infrastructure and to start building their own, or co-operating with the emerging platforms in the industry really, really quickly. And the absolutely number one priority, if you haven’t got it already, is to get connected.
I’ve called connectivity the gateway to digital operation many times, and as the future speeds up it’s turning into an even more fundamental need. Just like Harry Potter lining up his baggage trolley, what’s required to open that gateway is enterprise-grade connectivity, and something else too.
Like Potter, you need an unshakeable belief that there is something on the other side—something that you can see clearly if you close your eyes. And most of all you need an absolute conviction that it’s somewhere that you and your organisation wants to go.
It’s the difference between catching the digital train, or ending up banging your head against a brick wall.