Exploit before you explore, says Western Bulk’s head of digital strategy

Exploit before you explore, says Western Bulk’s head of digital strategy

Recognising current opportunities, exploiting them, allowing yourself to be challenged, and implementing a company culture that focuses on integration and data sharing is vital to efficient and cost-effective shipping.

Mr Martin Hjelle, head of technology & digital strategy, Western Bulk

Exploiting current business models and making changes that can be hard for people to accept is where every shipping company should start in their journey of performance optimisation, Mr Martin Hjelle, head of technology & digital strategy, Western Bulk told us in an interview.

Too often, companies both in and out of the shipping industry jump into exploring new business models, forgetting about existing businesses they are involved in. Mr Hjelle believes that companies need to take a step back and improve their current models and systems in order to achieve true and long-term efficiency and competitiveness.

Speaking with VPO Global, Mr Hjelle explained that a key part of exploiting current business opportunities is to break through the barriers that limit a company’s ability to progress. Companies need to “open up, innovate, and communicate with other companies,” to get the best they can from their employees and maximise their business potential.

Since joining the Norwegian shipping company 18 months ago, Mr Hjelle has focussed on improving current ways of working and adapting to cloud-based software in preparation for exploring new opportunities in the future. He realised that, “transparency needed to be improved and risk needed to be reduced.” One of the ways Western Bulk identified that it could increase this transparency and optimise its current business system was to start using an integrated group email system in the form of SEDNA, which is a team-based transaction management platform that manages the company’s email and internal collaboration. “Emails are still the core of the business,” he confirmed. “In shipping, group emails are very important and it is essential to be able to look through conversations and find out what happened. Because of GDPR and other legislations, you may not get this on personal emails, but you can on a group system,” he told us. Furthermore, “downtime or updating is too big of a risk, it is so important. We needed to change and have a software solution that could improve our current business,” he explained.

As well as using available software to improve a business model, Mr Hjelle says that a vendor with an open strategy is vital.  He strongly believes in this because it supports data sharing, which is “necessary for new possibilities” and is the first step in exploring further opportunities in digitalisation. Referring again to Western Bulk’s choice of SEDNA, Mr Hjelle says that he felt a difference in SEDNA. “It provided an openness and willingness to talk to other companies, to integrate and innovate both internally and externally.”

This was particularly important for Western Bulk following its previous move to Veson Nautical’s Veslink IMOS Platform. According to Mr Hjelle, “IMOS is already a powerful system but when you connect it to the SEDNA system, what we are looking at now becomes even more powerful.” The benefits of integrating systems and platforms means that they learn to talk to one another. “When this happens, you can make new work flows, new processes, simplify, and make it much easier for the operators.”

Furthermore, as a shipping company, Mr Hjelle believes in the importance of finding a vendor that will challenge you in order to build a true partnership. This was another reason why Western Bulk opted for SEDNA. “We said what we want and don’t want, and they challenged us with the things we wanted. They helped us to see how to do things differently. We found this much more efficient and you solve your issues much faster,” he explained.

Another important aspect of exploiting the current business model is to instigate a change in culture. There is little point in exploring new avenues and new digital opportunities if people are not willing to adapt to a changing business model.

As the head of technology and digital strategy at Western Bulk, Mr Hjelle is pushing a lot of changes, some of which he believes does not always make him very popular. “It is hard to change when nobody wants it but everyone needs it,” he confirmed. Attacking this culture is definitely a challenge because if you look at monthly measures, then it never seems like a good time to make a change, but it really does help in the long-term.”

Some attribute shipping’s resistance to change to its conservative and traditional nature, but Mr Hjelle argues that this is more of a myth than reality. “If you look at the technology being used in shipping, particularly in Norway, some of the first people that started using computers at home were the ones working in shipping because they had to have access,” he explained.  “Mobile phones were in shipping. Telex was also advanced in shipping. Now we’re looking at artificial intelligence (AI) and other new technologies that can be applied to shipping to make it more efficient. Ten years ago there were a lot of optimisation problems to solve and we were using technologies to do this. I don’t believe the industry is so conservative when it comes to using new technologies.”

In Mr Hjelle’s opinion, resistance to change comes from a culture that is hesitant to push through the scales of change and train people to accept that their roles might differ to what they’ve been used to. “If you don’t dare to push for change then you can stay in business for quite some time but then suddenly markets will change or business will change and it will be too late – you will be too far behind and the change will be too dramatic at this point.” He believes that the shipping industry is soon to experience a change that is bigger than what has been seen yet. “If this happens in shipping it will be important for those that have learnt the skills and understand how to change. They will be part of the ones that push forward and move through the changes that are coming.”

There are also many start-ups entering the maritime market with new ideas and ways of thinking, providing the opportunity for innovation. “In this respect, we are not far behind other industries,” Mr Hjelle confirmed. The problem is that there is a lot of money flowing into this system but there are not that many users, so innovation becomes more expensive.” In Mr Hjelle’s eyes, shipping companies have a responsibility to be open to start-ups, invite them to participate, and share their data to enable small companies with innovative ideas to enter the market and be provided with the opportunity to drive change.

Mr Hjelle also urges shipping companies to reach out if they face uncertainty when starting to optimise their businesses and ship performance. “There are a lot of things we can do with technology and knowing where and how to start will come from sharing and being open. Once people start to share data and technology, the way we do certain operations will change.” He believes this change will only come once a culture of sharing and openness is fully accepted, enabling better integration of systems and the delivery of solutions that ‘talk’ to one another. This process might be slow, but Mr Hjelle assures that in the last 12 months he has seen significant progress in this area.

Referring to the hospitality industry to highlight the importance of information sharing, Mr Hjelle explained, “When TripAdvisor was established, people began sharing their experiences of hotels and restaurants, everyone except for the bad venues benefited. If you look at the shipping industry and what information could be shared, it shouldn’t be a secret between companies because everyone will benefit from the insight apart from the bad guys.”

While Mr Hjelle acknowledges that there will of course be some data that remains confidential, he believes as an industry, shipping needs to move away from protecting all information because the information should be used to help build operational efficiency together. “A great vessel database doesn’t exist – everyone builds their own individual one, but it should be shared. This would save so much time and improve efficiency for the industry in total.”

Mr Martin Hjelle, head of technology & digital strategy, Western Bulk is speaking at Digital Ship’s maritime digitalisation forum taking place at the Nor-Shipping trade show on Wednesday June 5 in the Sor Norge room of the Thon Hotel. He will be presenting at 14:00 on the topic: ‘Making the changes that nobody wants, but everyone needs.”