5 Digital Transformation Mistakes to Avoid in the Shipping Industry

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” ― George Bernard Shaw

Digital transformation isn’t easy.

Instead of incremental improvements, we’re looking to reimagine how we operate. To transform data, processes and platforms to unlock better communication, collaboration, and outcomes, end to end.

Working on big goals means we’re bound to make some mistakes along the way. But if we know ahead of time what we’re up against, we can do our best to avoid them.

We can learn from others to see what’s worked (and what hasn’t), and most importantly, clarify what mistakes we need to avoid in the shipping industry.

Collaboration is key to transformation. And this article was made possible by the inputs of sharp minds in the shipping industry. After posting on LinkedIn asking for your inputs, I was overwhelmed by the response — more than 20 comments in the first hour alone!

I read every one of them, and while I couldn’t include every comment in this piece, I’m extremely grateful for all the contributions and everyone’s willingness to share.

If this collaborative approach is anything to go by, it certainly bodes well for the future of our industry.

Now, onto the mistakes.

Without a clear vision, digital transformation is just a series of disconnected initiatives.

If we don’t know what we’re hoping to achieve, how can we expect to get there? More importantly, how will we know when we arrive?

Any vision needs to come from the top. It needs to be organisation-wide, not isolated in departments. Isolated efforts may yield some results, but unless they’re part of a larger vision, progress will be limited.

But a vision alone however isn’t enough. As Amir Billones, Data Architect at Termont, shared as a response to my LinkedIn post, successful digital transformation also requires a holistic roadmap of how we’ll get there — one that evolves from data, to processes, to platforms.

Absent a clear vision, and a coordinated plan, we cannot expect digital transformation to stick.

Nietzsche said “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” And while digital transformation is not a matter of life or death, understanding our why is always important.

Transformation needs buy-in from the people it affects. If they don’t understand the why, they’ll be less likely to support the how. People are naturally resistant to change, a clear purpose reduces that resistance.

The clearer we can be about the benefits of transformation, and the reasons behind it, the greater support we’ll generate. We may understand the benefits, but it’s on us to help others understand it too.

Carl Penfold, Manager at Spencer Ogden, summed it up nicely in his comment on my LinkedIn post — “those who fail, tend to neglect the people / human & cultural elements of change”.

Digital transformation can’t happen in isolation — especially in the shipping industry.

In an industry like ours, with extremely high levels of interaction across the value chain, collaboration is key. Carriers, agencies, ports, terminals, customs — none of them operate in isolation — so any advancements must work at an industry level, not just within our own organisation.

It’s refreshing to hear that sentiment echoed by others in the industry, like Daniel Mast, Senior Platform Product Owner SCM Platform at A.P. Moller — Maersk, when he commented “if we truly care about our customers we should look beyond our own little turf”.

Competing digital platforms and formats are not the answer. Success demands a collaborative approach. As Herbert Fuchs, CIO/CDO for ASGCUAE, commented “industry-wide digital standards and integrated digital platforms are a must.”

Standardisation is a goal I’m passionate about, and one we’re working on with the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA).

It’s easy to get excited about new technology. Whether it’s blockchain, AI, IoT, or robotics, it’s tempting to rush out and apply it, without thinking through how it will be used (or if it should be used at all).

‘Hot’ new technologies often get a lot of buzz, but blindly following trends does not lead to successful digital transformation. You can end up stuck with tech that’s not fit for purpose, and waste time and money in the process.

The fact is, digital transformation is less about digital, and more about the transformation. Technology should be viewed as a tool to help us achieve better ways of working, and better experiences end to end.

I agree with Antoine Korulski, Digital Business and Innovation at MSC, when he replied to my post saying digital transformation is not about the technology, but about making people better at what they are doing.”

It should always be about finding a tech for the use case, not a use case for the tech.

Ultimately it all comes down to the people. Chief among them are our customers. If it doesn’t make life easier, if it doesn’t create better, more intuitive and efficient ways of working, then we’re missing the mark.

But it’s not about customers alone. We must also incorporate internal teams, business partners, and even the talent of the future. If we lose sight of the human aspect of digital transformation, we’re destined to fail.

As Marco Wetzel, Regional Sales Manager Germany, Wärtsilä Voyage Solutions puts it (again in response to my post) “the road to a digital transformation starts and ends with people.”

It’s people who use the tech, not the other way around.

As Jason Parkes, Head of IT at MSC UK, put it, “technology enhances our human capability rather than replaces it.”

I’m confident that with a clear vision and purpose, a collaborative approach, and a people-first mentality, we’ll be successful with our digital transformation journey.

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at @MSCCargo and chairman of DCSA. I mostly tweet about the digitalisation of container shipping!