News Article 27/02/2008

Task Management tool offers timely reminders (MEC, Februar/ March 2008, p.18)

As crews are required to memkorise increasing volumes of safety and procedural information, an innovative software tool aims to tell personnel what they need to know when they need it.

Every year ship managers spend huge amounts of money on training seafarers and shore staff. These figures are typically higher still when it comes to the passenger ship crews. Yet these costs are often viewed as a necessary price of providing a demonstrably responsible service.

Notwithstanding concern is growing that ceaseless prescriptive stipulations are exerting an increasingly large impact on an operator’s efforts at making passenger ships economical to run. The matter is further complicated by the emphasis now being given to ensuring management transparency and risk mitigation. To ease these problems, Ulysses Systems has launched a new software tool that it believes will help.

At the heart of such problems is the sheer volume of knowledge that crew members need to memorise and apply in their day-to-day tasks. Safety Management Systems (SMS) manuals for instance, are extensive and contain both critical and non-critical information.

While all the information that staff need is theoretically at their disposal, the complexity and length of these manuals often makes absorbing information very challenging, especially under strict time and language constraints. As a result, trainees are sometimes unable to identify the relationships between different procedures and tasks, hindering prioritisation and decision making.

A further trend for new documentation and updates to be delivered electronically, with the expectation that crew members read these immediately and change their behaviour accordingly. In reality, such missives are often ignored because they seem obvious, or are untimely, full of unanswered questions, or conflict with other procedures.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that passenger ship operators experience high crew turnovers, which means that many members are not used to familiarising themselves with the procedures related to a specific ship. In many cases they are “first timers” with no sea experience who have only undergone basic training.

The increasing frequency of litigation also means shipping companies need to improve familiarisation techniques to prevent incidents which may incur heavy fines, legal disputes, or damaged corporate image. This is especially important as, following any incident, courts often scrutinise how familiar crew are with procedures and how closely these are followed. Therefore greater onboard familiarity with manuals and timely access to appropriate information could ultimately make a difference in court proceedings.

How is a ship manager supposed to ensure his crew members and shore side staff are up to speed with the company’s SMS so that statutory requirements are met and the risk of legal liability is minimised? Ulysses Systems thinks it has the answer in its software solution, Task Assistant. In essence this addresses the need for quicker familiarisation by displaying what needs to be known at the appropriate time. In other words, to present information to ship staff in the context it is to be used.

A typical example a fire breaking out, when a choice of three fire-fighting procedures is possible, depending on the particular materials that are burning, the fire’s location, and the availability of officers in charge – or more likely a combination of all three.

Likewise, a change in policy on a critical spares quantity is inextricably related to the process of ordering spares and should be viewed when an order is about to be made. The introduction of new voyage risk evaluation processes is inextricably related to planning of a new voyage.

The lack of explicit or stated relationships between each choice and the context in which its selection is appropriate provides a compelling impetus for tasks not being completed properly and/or erroneous record keeping. Both aspects could become liabilities if exposed in court proceedings or during inspections and other official audits.

Moreover, such situations are rarely isolated but tend to be characteristic of system-wide deficiencies, resulting from crew aversion to using the onboard IT systems which can lead to defects going unresolved.

Task Assistant is based around the principle of ‘task orientation’, an architecture that indexes business objects in accordance with how each user utilises them. Instructions, alert items, and alert responses are indexed and modified according to each user’s point of interaction with a system. If a procedure has changed significantly since the last time a person was required to perform it, it will be clearly flagged at the next log-in so that the changes are taken into account.

Ulysses states that indexing conventions used in competing software systems often present users with tasks without explicitly providing the necessary contextual background. Instead, it says, they only provide the ‘navigational labelling’ of the application, forcing users to guess as to the intended end use of each object. Ulysses believes such systems are critically flawed as they fail to differentiate between the relevant stages of an operation and the task at hand.

The overriding objective is to ensure that relevant documents are instantly available for the task at hand, regardless of how experienced a staff has become with the contents or layout of documentation or software applications.

Ulysses Systems has carried out training and familiarisation benchmarking tests, which it says have demonstrated that when a company uses Task Assistant, crew member training expenses can be reduced by between 29 and 53 per cent. It claims that crew members were subsequently up to 42 per cent more familiar with onboard safety management procedures.