Jenna Brown from Shipamax on how modern workplaces are evolving.
With a historic role in the growth of modern economies, dry bulk shipping today continues to be the beating heart of global trade and is bound inextricably to the fortunes of both established and developing nations around the world.
Beyond the ships and the cargo though, the industry is still ultimately all about people. Just finding and fixing a vessel – and ensuring its safe voyage – involves a complex network of people. It takes a huge chain of specialists and experts all of whom need to interact with each another and share critical information. To make smart commercial decisions and deliver the best service to their customers, they must manage data, knowledge and intelligence effectively. They need to collaborate.
The sheer volume of communication
With the range of different stakeholders – from shipbrokers, agents and commercial staff to scheduling, bunkering and cargo management teams – working together, the amount of communication can be immense. Whilst post-fixture shipping operations has been improved using technology to enhance these communications, there are still big challenges with the less formalised pre-fixture processes – perhaps providing the biggest opportunity for improvement.
But it’s not just the volume of communication that can be daunting. The variety of different messages, formats and chat programs can be overwhelming too. To help simplify things, we usually think about two main types of pre-fixture communication; group circulars and market
Group circulars include information sent in bulk to several team email addresses – such as firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com – rather than individual people. They are generally private but not too sensitive – open market positions or requests – and companies can receive thousands of them each day. Understandably, physically reading each of these emails will be almost impossible, so having the ability to access new information and be alerted to relevant changes in real-time is crucial.
Market gossip, on the other hand, is much more sensitive and includes important information – such as recent rates, fixture details, hidden cargos and off-market positions – that would not usually be widely distributed. Access to this information relies on strong relationships and can provide competitive advantage. Essentially, it is this private market gossip that really brings the market together and provides liquidity. The most successful brokers will find innovative ways to keep track of all this information, uncover valuable insights for their clients and make the communication process as quick and easy as possible.
How the modern workplace is evolving
Given the volume of data and information, the impact new technology is having on business operations cannot be understated – and the dry bulk shipping industry is no exception. We have been using shipping software to improve the way we work for decades, but managing commercial communications – both internal and external – is now more important than ever.
For the last 15 years, email has been the preferred choice for group circulars, whilst external one-to-one interactions have relied on telephone calls and instant messaging – with Yahoo’s dominance being taken over recently by the likes of Skype, WhatsApp and WeChat. Whilst the telephone remains a very popular means of sharing market gossip, we have seen huge growth in the use of these chat applications in recent years – driven by the convenience, privacy and security they offer.
Internal communications though are still dominated by face-to-face interactions and the use of shared databases for open positions and fixtures. More recently, cloud storage and collaboration services – think Google Docs – have become popular, with chat applications beginning to take traffic away from more traditional email.
Are current tools up to the job?
Despite these recent developments, it’s fair to say that even the latest technology solutions are not without their problems.
For external communications, email and instant messaging are good solutions but difficulties creep in when the information needs to be shared internally. It can also be extremely time consuming to keep switching between various databases and messaging applications and there is no easy way to keep track of information across all the disparate systems.
The shared databases used for internal communications – such as tonnage search tools – can be hard to operate and maintain in real-time. Team members will often export data into a separate ‘offline’ spreadsheet application (e.g. MS Excel) to analyse and process it for their clients. This approach however, makes it very hard for them to keep track of what they are working on and can lead to the team wasting valuable time cleaning up all these different information sources. Worse still, it could result in providing incorrect information to clients, devaluing their impression of your service.
The future of real-time team collaboration
So, what does the future hold for dry bulk shipping? People will always want to use their favourite email or chat system and the shipping software that most meets their needs. With the number of technology solutions in play though, it is unlikely that there will ever be standardisation across these systems and platforms, which means much of the information they contain will be difficult to extract and real-time collaboration will be almost impossible.
But we live in an on-demand, always-on world where people expect information to be available at their fingertips – immediately.
What is needed then is a new solution that gives brokers the ability to react faster with all this combined information to provide smarter insights – putting them in the strongest position possible. This can be achieved by using an intelligent layer that sits on top of all these different systems and connects the underlying data, making it easily available to the user – and in real time. At Shipamax, we have created such an ‘intelligent layer’, designed to alleviate the day-to-day pains of chartering a vessel – mining through countless spreadsheets, shared documents, emails and instant messages – making it easier to communicate and keep track of all this information.
We believe that real-time team collaboration, automatic information processing and intelligent application interfaces are the future of dry bulk shipping software. Tediously piecing information together should be put firmly in the past.