News Article 01/03/1999

ISM code - one man's burden, another man's opportunity

01/03/1999 - Baltic Exchange 'Ship Management'

A few years ago we attended meetings at IMO when the International Safety Management Code and its Guidelines were being drafted. That experience gave us an early warning about the regulators'' expectations from the industry.

Whereas prior to ISM we already had to contend with controlled manuals and procedures (as for example with the "Vessel Response Plan" of the OPA9O, and the "SOPEP" of MARPOL), these earlier experiences addressed much narrower areas of operations.

The ISM Code on the other hand required that all activities on board and ashore which in any way relate to safety and prevention of pollution be documented and followed by auditable procedures, and also that all relevant communications and records be documented and traceable. This is a very broad requirement, with the practical implication that the Code could lead to cumbersome manuals, large volumes of paperwork and to impossible filing systems. Thus the danger in practice is that compliance with the Code can potentially lead to a "paper chase", which is expensive, inflexible, and of no real value other than obtaining the certificates to trade.

When we addressed and discussed in our company the prospect of compliance with the Code three years ago, we concluded that it would be necessary to make use of a computerised system. Having resisted office computerisation in preceding years, we realised that the now much cheaper computer memory, plus the power of computers to file and retrieve large volumes of information is the way forward for an ISM support system.

The basic requirements we envisaged were:
(i) to make it easy and fast for a user to locate all relevant entries in the company manuals for any given task;
(ii) to create a system which would administer the expected large volume of documentation (and its traceability) required by the Code
(iii) to establish a platform for the dissemination of information (applicable codes, guidelines, recommendations, IMO Resolutions, company instructions, etc);
(iv) to take advantage of today''s technology for speedy and economic communications.

We searched the market for a suitable system, but as such a system did not exist, we decided to design and to commission the development of one, which we suitably named "Task Assistant".

The need for "people literate" computers

The overriding thinking throughout this development has been dictated by our simple realisation that the introduction of computerisation on ships would be unsuccessful if we did not take fully into account the shipboard culture. Unlike shore-based personnel, ships'' officers rarely consider that record keeping for the benefit of reporting to the office is an essential part of their job. In reality, the tidy reporting of information is more of a benefit to the shore-based operation and to future relieving officers than to those entering data in the ship.

A good chief engineer, for example, prides himself in minimising ship''s idle time, a job that is dependent on his labour management, mechanical experience, knowledge and focus. Therefore any software intended for on board use, where turnover is high, and where there is little direct benefit to the data entering user, must deal with a great challenge. It must show immediate benefit to the user and must do so with proportionally low familiarisation effort.

To put it another way, the user must find it better and easier than any alternative.

In today''s shortage of well-trained and motivated officers, a piece of cumbersome software will be ignored, as will awkward record keeping and ISM systems. Therefore, as ship operators, we felt that we can elect to computerise only when the software in question can convince new users that it is easy to use and it is highly beneficial.

In conclusion we agreed that if computers were to be used in more widespread areas of shipping, the software must be "people literate", as opposed to people being "computer literate".

This simple realisation required a fundamental change in programming philosophy, which was achieved from an already established collaboration with a University in the development of educational packages. Part of the development of the Task Assistant system therefore involved experts from the world''s largest centre for cognitive sciences, the Institute of Learning Sciences of the North Western University of Illinois in the areas of task analysis and of the design of human-computer interface.

A software company was contracted (Ulysses Marine Electronic Market Ltd) to develop the system and a number of its programmers/developers were relocated within our company so as to work alongside the "shipping" people. Although this on occasions was somewhat disruptive to the personnel of both companies, it nevertheless allowed the development of a practical and tried system.

In our efforts we were successful in obtaining the support and partial funding for this work by two development projects of the European Commission: TREVI Esprit EP23311, and IDES Telematics Applications Programme Task TR5.1O.

Task Assistant

Early in the summer of 1998 the basic development work was completed. The ISM audits for DOC and SMC were successfully and relatively painlessly passed with Lloyd's Register of Shipping just before the July deadline using the fully computerised system. In fact, we believe that this was the first time a shipping company passed its ISM audits using a fully computerised system.

The system works by having the ISM/ISO 9002 Manuals, all relevant forms, checklists and all other communications between ship and office in electronic form. The mode of communication between office and ship is by e-mail. However, if a ship does not yet have e-mail, or if the items of communication are not urgent, the system allows the sending of messages or data by floppy disk. Filing of all information (checklists and communications) is automated.

The real and necessary innovation of the system is that it is "task and role based", ie. depending on the user''s role (Master, Chief Officer, Superintendent, Operations Manager, etc) and depending on the task he is about to embark, he is presented with all the relevant information available to support him in performing that task.

We have conveniently divided the support information into:
(i) Manual References
(ii) Relevant Information; and
(iii) Support Tools.

Screen 1 shows the "task tree" of the Master and its links to Manual References. In this example, when the Master selects the task "Supervise Loading", Task Assistant provides him with a direct link, in this example, to two relevant sections in the company's ISM manual.

The Master can then read these manual references (see Screen 2 for an example), annotate them electronically if he chooses with his personal notes, and even make suggestions for changes via e-mail to the Designated Person. Furthermore, the system allows linking to any relevant entries in any other manuals (such as for example SOPEP, VRP, key IMO resolutions, or even to corresponding entries in a second language ISM manual if the company has felt the need to translate its manuals for the benefit of non-English speaking crew). In the example shown on Screen 1, reference is made to a set of (non-ISM) manuals on Cargo Care.

In conclusion, the officers and crew can now be sure that essential information of direct relevance to a job they do is brought to their attention, and they no longer need to guess the relevance, or ask the Designated Person, or look for a translator, or do any other time consuming and confusing activity.

The user, having selected his task, and in addition to having a direct reference to manuals, also has access from within the task he is working to "Relevant Information", which includes: any previously filled forms, communications, reminders, standing instructions etc, whether originating from the office or from within the ship.

Screen 3 shows an example of incoming communications, here mostly from the office, relating to the Master''s task "Prepare for Voyage" and being relevant to the current voyage.

From "Support Tools" the user also has immediate access to any blank forms and checklists he may have to fill in as part of the task he is undertaking. Once filled in, such documents can be sent to the office by e-mail from within the Task Assistant system, and/or can be filed in the ship''s electronic directory. Finally, the user has access to any software the company may have provided to assist in performing the task in question, such as for example spreadsheets, electronic distance tables, payroll programs etc. Screen 4 shows the Support Tools linked to the Master''s task "Prepare for Voyage".

Easy location and retrieval of historic information is made possible by a search facility which allows the user to filter records according to: vessel, voyage, form name, and dates of interest. This is a most useful facility for internal or external audits. Screen 5 shows an example of searching and retrieving all forms containing in their title the word "drill" for a given vessel and for a selected period of time.

Manuals, forms, checklists, roles (eg. personnel), tasks, and flow of information are all totally customisable, ie. the system allows any company to populate and operate the Task Assistant software with their existing company structure and systems. Furthermore, if a company's organisational structure changes at some time in the future (for example a new role is created in the office and a redistribution of tasks takes place) the Task Assistant system is simply modified in-house to model the new structure without loss of historical data.

After the system has been used for a few months its value becomes more apparent because a company's recorded experience starts building up. Reminders, and records of past experiences effectively build into a "corporate memory".

We believe that we have created a very practical tool which allows a company to record its experience and knowledge and to share it to relevant personnel on board and ashore. The user then has access to any available information, for what he needs, when he needs it, whether he is ship based or shore based. Giving such effective access to information, which may otherwise lie unread in forgotten volumes, is a real commitment and the key into the essence of the ISM Code.