Humans are (still) key to managing the risks of digitalisation
Digitalisation and decarbonisation will be the defining issues for shipping over the next quarter of a century. But the scale of the change they create promises a third issue: how to manage the transformation on such a scale without compromising safety.
New vessel designs, new procedures and technologies and completely new fuels are changes that would normally evolve over decades with regulation leading the way. The speed of digital development and the timescale of decarbonisation upends that approach, with the industry moving ahead of the rules, using acceptance of novel concepts and verification of equivalence by class and flag.
While the industry’s safety record has continued to improve over time. there can be no complacency while ships are still going aground or losing cargo. More numerous, though far less reported are the bumps and scrapes, near misses and close calls that are the stuff of day to day operations.
Digital transformation calls for greater integration of systems, while the transformation to carbon-neutral shipping requires collaboration and increased transparency. Both require not just regulation, but a culture of continuous learning.
Clearly concerned that the industry may be moving ahead of the ability of statutory bodies and regulators to do their jobs, class society DNV GL warned recently that the industry may not fully capable of recognizing and managing the associated safety risks.
Complex, innovative technology is key to driving transformations forward but safety depends on holistic risk management to address the technical as well as human and organizational elements that contribute to safety and account for the interaction between the two.
Digitalization increases system complexity and introduces new ways of working and collaborating. This makes traditional risk management methods insufficient for a model in which organizations become a patchwork of centralized and dispersed teams comprising multiple stakeholders.
This new and more complex risk picture needs to be made more explicit and proper risk controls put in place DNV GL suggests, focusing on the complexity of innovative technology is central, but insufficient in isolation.
Unsurprisingly (to regular readers at least), it believes that the success of the transition depends on people; in particular relying on an understanding of what people need in order to exercise the creative, constructive, and problem-solving abilities necessary for safe operations.
It should be possible for people to work alongside technology so that they can monitor and understand what is happening at any given moment, in any given situation. This is not only about crew members, but also maintenance engineers, suppliers, designers, managers and regulators; people who can supplement the feedback from technical systems with their creativity, problem-solving abilities and operational insights – provided that they have timely access to relevant information.
DNV GL’s analysis foresees two main changes in how maritime operations are carried out. The first is that with increased connectivity and as technology continues to mature, more functions currently carried out on vessels will move ashore. Second, it expects to see more ‘dispersed teams’ with functions currently performed at one location allocated instead to team members in different places.
The centralisation of functions, with teams dispersed between vessels and shore locations brings about change to traditional ways of working. It may raise questions about responsibility, accountability, communication needs or competence requirements. The successful combination of centralization and dispersion therefore depends on a solid understanding of the role of the human element in the digital future and calls for a structured process of ‘function allocation’ and a human-centred focus in design.
For decades, the development of automation in the maritime industry has been about technology replacing the human, assuming that less human involvement can benefit safety. However, using more technology does not necessarily lead to a reduction in human error; it is just as important to realize how the human element can compensate for technological limitations.
Function allocation is about the optimised distribution of functions between technology and people. It is particularly important in digital transformation because there are potentially fewer people available to intervene if the design of the system does not meet safety requirements, or if the system does not work as intended.
As more digital solutions are introduced, the temptation has been to see the role of the human element in assuring safety moving into the background, but it cannot be completely eliminated from the equation. In fact, high-performance systems ensure best outcomes by considering the strengths and weaknesses of both the human and technical elements in a dynamic process of function-allocation.
This makes it vital to follow a human-centred design process to make the factors that influence human performance more apparent. It will help to better support the strengths and mitigate weaknesses of the human element alongside technical and organizational factors in an operation.
Achieving and maintaining safety in an increasingly digitalized maritime industry demands multiple actions: addressing the needs of the human element in a digital environment is critical but so is integration to manage the increasing complexity of systems. Perhaps most importantly, organizations must develop digital transformation strategies to equip them to understand and manage new and emerging risks.