Working from home for many comes with opportunities to communicate in new ways, engage with digital solutions more and reflect on the way our industry works. Engaging with my network has provided examples of companies that have transitioned to remote working with little effort and some that have found it challenging, not just technically, but culturally. There is no doubt the industry will not go back to business as we knew it once the pandemic is over.
Before COVID19 (do you remember those days?) three major themes were being discussed; decarbonisation, digitalisation and cyber security. The challenges and opportunities in those areas remain and those maintaining a focus on them during the pandemic should be recognised, not least because the climate emergency has not gone away and requires urgent attention. As part of response to the climate challenge there has been a lot written about the benefits of supply chain optimisation with “Just In Time” working groups from various sources regularly producing articles on the subject. Much of this effort has arisen through greater visibility of fleet activity and the engagement of an enthusiastic community, not always from within shipping, analysing the data and highlighting opportunities to optimise performance, particularly with respect to emissions.
All of this is welcome and should be encouraged, but did cause me to reflect on what looks like a missed opportunity at least a decade ago. Why do I say that? In November 2010 OCIMF published a manual entitled “Virtual Arrival: Optimising Voyage Management and Reducing Vessel Emissions – an Emissions Management Framework”. The publication resulted from extensive work by a number of industry organisations. Fully understanding the need to accommodate current commercial and contractual practice, rather than reinvent it, the development team went to great lengths to make sure existing business practices were accommodated. For me the greatest achievement of the Virtual Arrival Emissions Management Framework was it achieved so much whilst changing so little and could be used by shipping generally and not just tankers.
With published efficiencies of 27% to be achieved, benefit sharing and without any hardware or technology development required, why didn’t it just happen? Why has uptake been so lamentably low and why has shipping lost a decade of emissions reductions? There are a number of possible reasons, some surrounding the validity and effect of a “Virtual Notice of Readiness”, some systemic inertia, no regulatory requirement, but many associated with elements of trust, or the lack of it between the voyage stakeholders and the often adversarial nature of their relationships.
For many decades the business of global shipping has been veiled by information deficits caused by the structure, scope and spread of its operations, or if you prefer, a lack of transparency. Add multiple stakeholders adopting offensive or defensive optimisations to exploit or limit the absence of transparency and it is understandable how an environment where trust is a rare commodity can exist. The question for today is whether shipping is better placed than it was 10 years ago to benefit from collaborative initiatives such as Virtual Arrival and wider supply chain optimisation.
I think it is. Shipping’s veil, whilst not entirely gone, is looking pretty tattered. Digitalisation and the connectivity which it requires are moving the industry forward with respect to frequency, scope, transparency and integrity of data sources. Reductions in the stakeholder community arising from more direct, authenticated communications between requirement and resource and the benchmarked information available to them provide fewer opportunities or need to exploit deficits. In fact the reverse is true and the opportunities now lie in using the wealth of data available to generate value. Perhaps through digitalisation we are closer to collaborating within a system of trust underpinned by transparency, a trust in systems and the documents and data they employ.
The last reason I would say it will be different this time is twofold; wider society and its regulators will not permit shipping to escape the obligations it has to reduce its carbon contribution and lastly and more positively, the present challenging times have made all in shipping acutely aware of just how essential it is to the well being of the global community and the global community, instead of seeing it as a villain, has been reminded of the good shipping can do in transporting the essentials needed in a time of crisis and we have a responsibility to and for each other. We are not likely to see a better opportunity to work together than in the globalisation of care.