Maritime industry must strike digital balance as it upgrades business models

Maritime must strike balance between for digitalisation

Striking the right balance between training the current workforce and attracting new talent is one of the key steps the maritime industry needs to take on its journey towards digitalisation.

The changing business and employment models of the industry was one of the overriding themes of the session on ‘Digital Transformation’ at Singapore Maritime Week. There were also suggestions that the COVID-19 pandemic was helping the industry attract more talent.

Andre Simha, Global Chief Digital and Information Officer, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), said the issue of bringing in new talent to accelerate digitalisation was a “complicated question” that “touched many aspects”, particularly when it involved attracting workers from other sectors.

“It is obvious that if we want to digitalise and do so quickly enough, bringing external skills from other industries makes a lot of sense.

“However, understanding our complex industry is also very important. The question is, do we have the time to bring in all these new skills or should we take the time to train workers we already have?

“I think it is a mix and if you look at the workforce today, we have younger people than we did previously, and so the ‘digital fright’ is not there anymore.

“These are people used to digitalisation and that makes things easier, but transforming the industry is still difficult. Other industries can teach us a lot, but we need to find the right balance.”

Simha added that the pandemic and remote working had caused some in the industry to adjust their outlook to digitalisation and “pushed people to adopt”.

The need for digitalisation has also made traditional stakeholders, such as MSC, work closer with startups.

This presents new challenges, Simha said, because startups tend to focus on one aspect of the industry, which is not always consistent with business models of major carriers that focuses on the movement of goods end-to-end.

“We need startups, but we also need to find the right way to integrate them into our operations and systems.”

Optimising implementation

Digitalisation has been one of the biggest themes for the maritime industry in recent years, with numerous innovations being developed and deployed across the supply chain to meet growing consumer demand.

While it is broadly accepted that digital technologies are important for the industry’s future, the challenge is how execute ideas that startups and in-house digital teams have to offer.

Luca Graf, Head of Digital Innovation, DSV, said “complementing skills and backgrounds” was an important part of building a functioning innovation team.

Graf claimed two-thirds of DSV’s innovation team comes from outside the maritime industry, including people from banking, marketing consultancy, software engineering aviation and more, which helps them work better with startups.

“This mix helps us because it allows us to look at a challenge from different angles. The logistics knowledge is still key.

“The challenge with innovation comes from implementation, you need to prepare it early enough and prepare the business units early enough as well, including IT.”

Graf emphasized the point by saying companies needed to avoid creating a “speedboat” for innovation but a “large vessel” when it comes to implementing new ideas and technologies.

“It is something we need to learn throughout the process and optimize as well.”

Pandemic drives interest in maritime

Marco Neelsen, CEO, Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP), said the industry needs a different set of skillsets than it did in previous years.

Working closely with the Malaysian government and universities, PTP has started offering opportunities and internships to students from an IT and electrical engineering background, Neelsen explained.

He also said that the pandemic has made the maritime and transportation industry more attractive because younger people and those from a digital background now understand how important the flow of goods is.

“In the last 15 or 16 months we have seen that transport is extremely resilient,” Neelsen said.

“In the ports, shipping lines and elsewhere, we are all running record volumes and are employing people while other industries, such as aviation and hospitality have had issues and have to let people go.”

The huge emphasis on digitalisation and global connectivity has made transportation “more attractive” for potential employees, students and graduates.

The approach to digitalisation has also made current employees less fearful of losing their job, according to Neelsen, who cited PTP’s ongoing operational upgrade.

He said utilising technologies such as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) allows for “upskilling” and gives workers to do “more valuable tasks”. Instead of being a threat to jobs, digitalization lets companies offer employees new opportunities in the industry.

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