July 10, 2018


They think it’s all over…

If you’re a football fan (and let’s face it for the past two weeks, you’ve had little choice) you’ll have your own favourite encomium. Whether it’s Bill Shankly’s immortal ‘it’s not a matter of life or death, its more important than that’ Alex Ferguson’s ‘Bloody Hell, football, eh?’ or the Brazilian catch-all ‘the ball is round, anything can happen’.

And the fact is, that for Brazil, it did. And Germany. And Portugal. And Argentina. And Spain. Italy and The Netherlands never even qualified.

Hosts Russia, not to mention England, have done better than expected, together with talented but unfancied Croatia. It’s never certain which version of France will show up, but so far they have looked sharp and united. And Belgium, a country that didn’t have a government for months and is really three provinces that don’t get along, also looks a strong contender.

And as many a studio pundit (ex-player, usually in good shape, wearing a slim fit shirt and a chunky watch) would say, it just goes to show how little we know. The England manager has won praise in this country at least by bringing new blood to the party and rather than underestimate his opponents’ strengths, played to his own.

This has been the best neutrals World Cup for a decade – I’d go so far as to say it’s one watched by more wives, girlfriends and partners too because in every single game there’s a chance that the opposite of what we expect will happen happens.

What can we learn from this? Well it’s too simplistic to talk about shipping as an analogue for football but there are conclusions we can draw from the general similarities in three football-style soundbites.

The first might be called ‘knowing what will work is hard’ and it works for both topics. Football is notoriously cyclical. Just ask the formerly high-flying teams now languishing in the lower reaches of the second and third divisions.

Do the same of owners and operators that placed big bets on the tanker and dry bulk markets based on what they thought were solid fundamentals, only to get their timing wrong by a matter of months or be knocked off course by macro events beyond their control. Sometimes there is a second act, but often there is not. Hubris, ego and money make for a toxic mix.

The same is true of our industry now. We hear little but the daily exploits of the knights of autonomous shipping, but seem to overlook that there are only a handful of small projects in anything close to the merchant shipping sector and those are so specialised as to be outliers.

It all seemed so shiny and new before the 2020 sulfur deadline, the BWM convention and the 2050 carbon emission targets, not to mention Brexit and Trump’s trade wars. From the perspective of now it looks like a distraction; a solution in search of a problem, when much bigger ones exist.

Like a bout of Tulipmania it also proves how wrong so many people can be all at the same time. The autonomous shipping conversation fails to recognise that automation has been growing for decades and the recent trend to connecting shoreside control centres with masters who are better integrated into the shipping operation gives a higher level of information and control.

Second, we have ‘it’s more about data than technology’. The digital lead for a class society remarked recently that using drones ‘isn’t about the machines flying around as much as what the data tells us, especially in places that humans can’t go’.

Like the Moneyball strategy employed by the Oakland As baseball team, soccer has adopted a data-driven approach to statistical analysis, unlocking the total value of the team and recognising that a player that makes or prevents goals is as important as the one that scores them.

And despite the many stories about digital shipping, the fact is that the industry is only just getting to grips with its data story. This is in part because it still relies on the noon report – a half time orange rather than an isotonic recovery drink – so is doomed to have too little data and probably too late to be much good.

This is not to say the tools aren’t available – from next generation weather routeing, to voyage optimisation, automatic data logging and dashboard analysis – and there are plenty more emerging. But as the IT head of CMA said in our last blog, it can work internally, but try to share data with customers and you very quickly get caught offside. Yes. data will be key going forward, but finding the best way to leverage it is going to be the real challenge.

Lastly, ‘if you want to overturn the status quo, you’ll need a blend of youth and experience’. Well, what did you expect in a piece about football? Ex-Liverpool defender Alan Hansen famously repeats the mantra ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ but England’s kids are in the semis and have all the self-belief they need.

One of the most notable things in the Lloyd’s List Business Briefing at Posidonia this year was that, of the four audience questions, three came from start-Silicon Valley start-ups. This itself was pretty disruptive, especially as certain speakers were determined to present a ‘move along, nothing to see here’ version of the shipping industry.

The fact is that the kids don’t have the keys to the kingdom yet. Shipping is not a Silicon Valley b2c VC-funded incubator. It’s a steel, rivets and debt business. But it’s also a glittering prize. Does that mean that some teenager is going to turn the industry upside down?

Not on their own, no. But it would be wise not underestimate the network effect they have at their fingertips. If I was a shipowner I would have access to a geek squad of my own, like a dead ball specialist, just in case.

So as the semis and final approach, what have we learned from the 2018 World Cup? If nothing else, perhaps only that sometimes it’s wise to recognise that past performance is no guide to future potential. Or perhaps that ‘Football is a game of mistakes. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins.’ And if you have a better cliché than that, then by all means, knock it into the back of the net.

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