Shipping is navigating a unique period of disruption. As the sector looks to rebuild and restructure in the short and medium term beyond the events of 2020, many of the long-term impacts of the year will not be clear for some time. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to return to the old “business as usual” approach and will have to adopt new ways of working.
Our sector has been forced to pause and reflect on the viability of long-term strategies in a world that presents constant challenges. No part of the market has been immune to the impact of the many disruptive forces at play, least of all ship agency. And it is against a very different backdrop, potentially very different from what we have seen to date, that we must set ourselves up for future success.
For many in shipping, including agents, the crisis has highlighted the importance of developing reactive strategies that support operations now and into the mid-term, whilst also having one eye on bigger trends that may impact operations in five to ten years.
Central to the minds of most ship agents is how to navigate the adoption of digital technologies and data – a trend which has been accelerated by the events of 2020 – whilst balancing them with traditional human insights and skills to create a new model for ship agency for the next decade.
There have been some quantum leaps in the use of digital technologies and data gathering within shipping over that past decade. We have seen transformations across the board, from classification societies embracing digital remote survey techniques, to ship agency’s use of real-time, high-quality data to overhaul decision-making.
From delivery of supplies using drones to live-stream operational tracking, the first half of 2020 saw an explosion of digital solutions to mitigate COVID-19 disruption. With our sector’s traditional reliance on face-to-face contact tested by the virus, shipping has had to get creative quickly to ensure that the global supply chain keeps moving.
Smart use of data brings cost efficiencies, enhanced operational visibility and planning. Real-time data analytics enables informed decision-making for everything from route optimisation to port call planning.
Neil Godfrey, GAC Group Commercial Director- Shipping
The downsides of data
These data indicators are vital. Over the last few years, ship agencies have been able to make strategic decisions underpinned by the insight they offer. This is unlikely to change; current conditions will not derail ‘big data’ or its management, but rather enhance our understanding of its potential.
Agents have started taking advantage of the insight data can provide. Real-time, high-quality intelligence has a material impact on our operations to the benefit of customers.
But in the short- to medium-term, there is a risk that customers could accept the productivity benefits of data in pursuit of cost reductions, whilst compromising quality of service. For example, greater adoption of technology and automation could erode the role human knowledge and local intelligence, traditionally the decision-making “engine” for many port activities.
Retaining the people factor
This year has underlined the importance of local presence and human capital. During the COVID-19 era, when operations are restricted and crews are under great stress, a good ship agent armed with local knowledge, contacts and industry expertise, can help to minimise disruption and keep ships – and trade – moving.
While some sectors within shipping can rely on automation and increased technology, agents still have an important monitoring role, before and during a port call, taking the necessary actions to avoid disruption to a vessel call. Technology will never be able to solve emergent problems on the quayside, where the insight and expertise of a professional ship agent can be quickly put to the test and proactive solutions found.
Cost pressures and knowledge bleed may heighten the reliance on the human capital that good ship agents have to offer, as expertise in the wider sector inevitably ebbs away.
A new digital/human blend
To navigate the current disruption and offer an agile and robust ship agency for the future, a new model for ship agency will emerge incorporating an even more blended symbiosis of technology and people. But if the sector is to succeed, every effort must be taken to ensure there is not an overreliance on either element.
In this new model, the ship agent leverages technology to ensure that operations are timed optimally and performed efficiently, and that relevant information is forwarded on to the right parties, reducing the burden on masters, owners, and operators.
It’s a matter of leveraging technology in the right way, including the quality of data being gathered – and how insights it offers are processed and combined in the best way with local and emergent knowledge – something that technology cannot easily replace – to deliver an all-round package to customers.
Staff must also be trained to equip the sector for the demands of the future. If we do not provide them with the training and tools they need, we are setting them up to fail and sowing the seeds of even greater problems.
The message for ship agents is to not lose sight of the long view due to disruptions now or in the near future. Digitalisation must be embraced for what it can offer; tremendous intelligence and efficiency benefits to our work, but in a way that does not replace our most valuable assets: the indispensable skills and experience of a good ship agent.