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  • Melvin Mathews

“Not in my lifetime!” Really?

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their mind, cannot change anything – is a saying that we must constantly remind ourselves. Most people agree that the pace of change today is faster than it has ever been before. All indications are that change is only going to get more rapid.

The maritime industry is characteristic of being steeped in tradition. While upholding tradition is honourable and is of utmost importance, I suspect that what it also masks is an inherent inertia to change. Quite often we hear statements such as –

  • We have been doing this for decades, everybody is familiar with it

  • This method has served us well for many years, it has worked for us

  • We see no reason to stop doing it, it must have value, if not it would not have been started in the first place

  • It means changing everything we do, we will do so if it is absolutely necessary

  • It has been tried & tested over time, it is the gold standard

As a young seafarer I have heard a very senior Captain once say “What on earth do we need a computer on the ship for? They are useless on board, we will never ever be needing one – Not in my lifetime”. It was the time when everything was manually done on board and there was a radio officer on every ship. Strangely, not only did I find the radio officer fastest at the Morse code, he was usually the fastest on a typewriter too.

With the adoption of GMDSS a few years later the radio officers were fazed off. Now with no radio officer on board with magic fingers, the very same Captain I am certain was merrily typing away on a computer keyboard with his two fingers, realising that neither is there a need for carbon paper nor a need for any white correction fluid. There are ships today that are highly computerised and not just capable of navigation by autopilot but fully capable of automatic loading and unloading cargo. Modern computerised dynamic positioning vessels are more efficient in automatic mode than when operated by the best trained crew in manual mode.

I have since heard “Not in my Lifetime” on many occasions and then later those words had to be eaten. Many such changes that were considered implausible have happened such as –

  • UMS operation not requiring engineers manning the engine room all the time.

  • When it comes to navigation charts, many ships have become paperless and electronic.

  • Mid-ocean not only has Skype and Facebook come on board with the internet, but with wifi and the smart phone so has Instagram, Whatsapp and Twitter.

Many have tried to figure out why this is the case. Perhaps the reason for this lethargy to change lies in how a young seafarer is trained. Which is essentially to accept orders blindly and carry out his duty only in a certain tried and tested traditional manner, with little scope or freedom to try something new. The intentions were good, i.e., keep the young seafarer safe and keep the ship, crew and cargo safe. However much later when the same seafarer shifted to working ashore, it appears many of them seem to have carried these deeply ingrained traits ashore as well. Which means they end up there too sticking to the tried and tested methods of working without questioning or seeking alternatives and improvement.

Instead of saying “not in my lifetime” and then be forced into accepting change, would it not be better to embrace it at the outset as an early adopter, and proactively implement it with a welcoming mind-set of “in my lifetime”.

There appears to be a new generation of people working ashore with limited or no experience of working on ships. This new breed of young superintendents and managers appear to have a greater appetite to experiment, try new things and look at alternate methods with an open mind. Noticeably, the next generation of ship-owners have also arrived. They are not seafarers turned ship-owners who as leaders were tied to tradition, but Ivy League business graduates who as leaders understand finance more than tradition.

There is no doubt in my mind that this combination of young leadership and their team of open minded superintendents and managers are going to bring about unprecedented innovation and disruption in the way business is traditionally done. There will definitely be a lot of new things happening, but what has to be watched is where exactly are going to be the breaks in tradition both on-board and ashore.

I can’t wait to see how these changes will transpire and I hope with anticipation that many of them happen “in my lifetime”.

Let me know your thoughts.

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