Beyond ZOOM- What’s Ahead?

A lot has been written about what, exactly, the New Normal will be, for society generally, for overall business, and then for the pond where I swim- “the maritime business”. I was joking with someone who saw my “background” of tchotchkes accumulated at conferences and conventions (think TNP hats and rubber tankers, or those little oil barrel stress balls from Lubmarine- or Cohen & Steers) that the next big give-away “thing” would be masks with company logos.

My fervent hope is that real events, this includes conferences, gala dinners and seminar type gatherings, will return to become part of the shipping scene. But a lot of this is outside of anybody’s control and subject to whims that nobody can predict- forecasting the evolution of the pandemic and then, the official responses to it, makes oil or freight market forecasting seem like an exact science. As noted in a previous article, Capital Link has taken the lead in making a “pivot” from physical events to their evolving virtual analogue. Like everyone else, my “working from home” has included a steady diet of webinars and similar events. Starting shortly after the mid-March shutdown, financial brokerages, law firms, trade associations and media interests have either begun, or ramped up existing programs of delivering their “content” over the internet. Some have done better than others; I am not talking about the inevitable technical glitches (or failure to offer “replays”- which is a necessity)- but rather, integration into their bigger business flows.

The media, in many cases, were already offering a digital “channel” though podcasts and webinars. Professional service firms, more focused on one-on-one or small group meetings, have had to work a little harder at it, as they pivot to online delivery. Some of the transportation and energy focused equity analysts have proven to be excellent online presenters- not quite the stuff of “shipping celebrities” but have dovetailed their online personas nicely with their written presence. There will still be some evolutions required; no forecasts here of whether we will get back to the old style of conferences and meetings. Consider one on one meetings of the type taking place privately at ship finance conferences- can a virtual encounter pick up the “look in the eye” of a company executive asking tough questions? In spite of my “fervent hope” expressed above, in my mind- the digital side will play a bigger role in human interactions amongst industry participants.

Virtual business culture is going to be an important focus for the maritime activities. The rapid digital transformations are already having profound impacts on Ship Registries, Class Societies, and maritime service providers generally. Clearly, virtual meetings will become commonplace in the maritime ecosystem. Actual deal closings, ship inspections and other encounters are moving online, at least partially.

A bigger subject, which will no doubt be grist for future articles, concerns technology aboard ships- the interaction of the machines aboard vessels. The past three months have been instructive as I’ve pondered the idea, and experienced it (like all the readers) of integrating technology (Zoom, et. al) into the people side of the business. As mentioned previously, the mark of tech success has been its integration into a broader set of business flows. When it comes to technology chasing ships around- it varies- in some cases one part of tech bolts on nicely with others. Other times, we see some great tech, albeit standing on its own, marketed to the industry. I like the suggestion of one notable shipping celeb, Dr. Martin Stopford, on a late April Capital Link webinar- that big ships borrow the digital architecture from the world of yachts, where “messages” are transmitted through a central digital “bus”. Under such architecture, by definition, everything is “integrated”. We are not there yet.