News Article 29/08/2009

Why You Need Shipping Software for Shipping and Dry-Cleaning Software for Dry-Cleaning.
Digital Ship, August- September 2009, p. 23

In life there are few technologies that can really provide everything you ever wanted – and in shipping this is usually no different. Is it possible to have a one-size fits all approach that covers everyone’s needs?

When I was about to go to high school I thought maybe, when I grew up, I would be a management consultant in an area where no one knew anything yet or maybe a clinical psychologist.

I asked my dad to pick out a high school for me where I could learn these things. But, he sent me to a high school that taught algebra and history and English Literature. He said he thought the one-size fits all approach to education would work fine.

A couple of years later he offered to buy me a car. I wanted to go four wheeling over mountain trails but he bought me an Oldsmobile. He said all cars were really the same and anyway this was the cheapest one.

I decided to try cooking after high school and my Dad bought me a do-it-all Cuisinart food processor. He said it would be the only tool I ever needed. But I needed a potato peeler and a garlic press and many other tools because one size didn’t really fit all my needs.

Later, I decided to open my own business and my Dad offered to buy me a computer. I said I wanted one that knew a lot about my particular business and my industry.

I wanted one that could help me plan each day by prioritising my goals because it knew what my goals were and which ones were more important than the others under various circumstances. I wanted one that could warn me just in time about issues that were about to confront me and one that would know what all my employees were up to and why.

But he bought me a PC with Windows. He said that Microsoft software was ‘one size fits all’ and that it was good enough for me.

My Dad never really got it about me nor did he get it about why companies like the ‘one size fits all’ idea.

It’s not that Microsoft is stupid, any more than the people who sell textbooks to schools are stupid, or the manufacturers of Cuisinart and Oldsmobile are stupid. They are all very good at making money. They do this by producing things that the maximum amount of people will need.

But, I wondered, shouldn’t the world of software be different? Can’t we build special purpose software, meant for particular types of users, and have it so this software is better than the ‘one size fits all’?

Of course, but the usual software giants wouldn’t be the ones making that software so it wouldn’t really know about the needs of the shipping industry; but couldn’t a company that really knew the needs of the shipping industry make software that was specially designed for the challenges?

Most of the top software manufacturers make a single suite of enterprise software for 10 or more different industries.

Such a suite always has a purchasing part, which can serve as an example to make the following point: goals in purchasing are similar only in generic factors such as comparing prices, communicating particulars, establishing the price and delivery.

In shipping I understand that purchasing is primarily a knowledge based challenge of sending things to moving vessels in different places at the right time, and followed by a very different challenge of getting highly paid field managers like chief engineers to do clerical work on a computer.

Purchasing in a manufacturing plant is more a challenge of co-ordinating just in time delivery to avoid either production delays or excessive inventory. No issue regarding moving factories or convincing riggers to be clerks.

Returning to the subject of me, my Dad and cars, the goals of a four wheel drive are to climb mountains, the goals of an Oldsmobile are to provide cheap transport.

Goals can be conflicting and serving too many, often means you don’t serve any particularly well. For example, an off road car has a bouncy ride and expensive running gear, not so the inexpensive highway or town cars. Also, an off road car burns more fuel.

So my Dad did buy me an Oldsmobile, a make that does not exist today, but I did not go into business, instead, I became a professor of computer science at Stanford in 1961, but I think you get my drift…

Purchasing systems

Shipping, being a service and risk management intense industry, involves people at a senior level adjusting to differing circumstances in order to manage them. The introduction of software must improve efficiency of process and human performance.

Purchasing being one of these processes, it follows that a purchasing system must be a tool to improve performance in completing desired processes involving timely purchasing and delivery.

The problem has been that software applications fail onboard because of the following reasons:

  • The applications are based on designs suited for dedicated clerical roles on land whereas on board they are to be used by highly paid multi-tasking senior ship officers.
  • Few industries expect senior managers with a vast array of managerial tasks to operate software for purchasing, for reporting both standard and unforeseen situations, making crew payments, for crew record keeping, maintenance of machinery, etc.
  •  There is a high rate of senior officer turnover so that software-training efforts significantly surpass the cost of the software purchase and have very unreliable results.
  • There is a shortage of good officers and therefore terms cannot be dictated to them.
  • Any discontinuity of use onboard and resulting gaps in information renders the software useless; for example, what is the use of an onboard inventory if there is doubt as to whether it has in the past been updated regularly and consistently.

Appropriate user

Most software applications do not distinguish who is the appropriate user for each feature or process stage.

This makes them hard to use because all users wade through all the features until they find the ones meant for them. This is one of the reasons that maritime software can cost a company many multiples of the license cost to train people on board.

Task Orientation is the availability of adaptation facilities within the software that ensures that the functionality of the software is precisely suited to each user and each user’s specific step in a process.

This saves valuable time and preoccupation for multi tasking employees, which is by far the most costly expenditure in software lifecycle costs, while offering the highest level of process control. Doing this work without reliance on vendors is a tremendous logistic aid to the success of software.

The ability to eliminate middlemen in the initial or refining stages of configuration is paramount to maintaining an up to date and credible information base which in turn is essential to success.

A marine software system with rudimentary configuration facilities will likely be as successful as a bulk carrier without in built facilities for machinery overhaul.

Actually we do not know much about dry-cleaning software but it seemed like a more interesting title.

**This article has been adapted from a white paper on shipping software created by Ulysses Systems, featuring an opinion piece from cognitive science expert Professor Roger Schank, and contributions from Panteleimon Pantelis of Ulysses Systems