Out of the public's eye, ship vessels are sailing some pretty high-tech seas.
Today's vessels rely on communications technologies for a range of business activities including customs clearance and telephone services. Onboard crew also stay connected with customers, suppliers and family via e-mail and extranets.
But a new generation of applications could soon be coming off the waters with the introduction of Inmarsat's FleetBroadband in November, an IP-based service touting cost-effective voice and data communications to vessels.
In a recent e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Patrick Slesinger, CIO of Wallem Group, one of the world's leading shipmanagers headquartered in Hong Kong, discusses the impact of FleetBroadband and other technologies like Web services, set to reshape the industry.
An avid sailor, who began sailing competitively in 2005, Slesinger says the sport calls for good forward-planning and flexibility--the same attributes required in his full-time job.
As chief information officer, he oversees all telecommunications and IT functions for the Wallem Group, ensuring business units and their clients are well supported.
Slesinger says he spends a large part of his day devising ways to better support the business, and it is the continuing challenge of creating business value that keeps him awake at night.
It is also no surprise that his other dream occupation has to do with the sea.
Q. What are your responsibilities as CIO for Wallem Group?
Slesinger: I sit on the Wallem Group's executive committee and am responsible for internal group IT and also third-party contracts. These include software development and support, BPO (business process outsourcing) and BPR (business process re-engineering) for the group's clients, and other third-parties in the maritime industry.
My primary responsibility is to create, and operate, an environment for cost-effective business process support. IT is an enabler and not an end in itself; it is there to support the business units and their clients. Further to this, IT can enable new business opportunities, and a large part of my day is taken up looking for ways to support the business units' near-, medium- and long-term strategies. This entails ensuring the group's IT strategy stays in step and advising the business units of potential enabling technologies, best practices and methodologies inside and outside of the maritime industry.
The management of the BPR and BPO projects in the group is also my responsibility. The visibility to the divisional core business processes, gained through the reduction of business processes to the Use Cases documentation standard, has already enabled considerable improvements in efficiency and operational controls.
How has IT changed the way the maritime industry operates or conducts business?
The maritime industry is a global business, and one which most of the time is outside of the public's eye. The coal face for the industry is the vessel, which spends the majority of its time at sea. The key IT enabler for the industry has been without a doubt the introduction of data services over Inmarsat. With the introduction of ship-based e-mail in the early to mid-1990s, ship-shore process integration became possible. Over the years, the Inmarsat product offerings have improved this integration, and now with the introduction of FleetBroadband, it is possible to treat a PC or system onboard a vessel as if it was part of your terrestrial wide area network.
Due to the global nature of the industry, the widespread adoption of the Internet has enabled the use of extranets and VPNs (virtual private networks) to reach all counter parties, from customers to suppliers. Remote offices have benefited from being able to cost-effectively access core group systems and with the adoption of XML based standards in the industry, inter-organization operational efficiencies have also been possible.
What are the top three technologies that are being adopted and making an impact in the maritime industry, and why?
Wider and more innovative use of Inmarsat-enabled systems is going to be a primary driver for the industry. Bringing the vessel 'closer to shore' will, without a doubt, enable currently impossible process deployments to become possible. Whilst in the past the focus has been to remove processes from the vessel, as the crew is overworked due to reduced manning levels, it may be possible to cost-effectively move processes and process support staff back to the vessels.
Extranet-enabled systems are playing a wider role in the industry with most organizations exposing some core systems this way. Increased process transparency, forced in part by regulations and competitive pressure, will increase the need for such systems. To date, the industry has been slow to adopt Web services, however, I can see this changing as companies wish to carry out process integration but do not want to have to visit half a dozen extranet sites to get the job done.
Standardization of data interchange via XML-based (Extensible Markup Language) standards is picking up pace and will be required if we are, as an industry, to move toward Web services and/or, at a simpler level, away from constantly re-entering data.
What are the challenges in building wireless networks on board ships?
Vessels are not wireless-network friendly places. Steel bulkheads and deck plates make wireless propagation difficult, at best, only possilbe outside of the accommodation block. Of greater value, as mentioned above, is building wireless networks to the vessels to allow ship-shore process integration.
Other than Inmarsat, there have in recent years been a number of other offerings based around VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) that have come and gone. The most visible of these offerings to disappear was Connexions by Boeing.
Obviously, if you are going to create ship-shore and shore-ship integrated processes, you need a stable communications platform. Over the last five years, there has been much talk about 'always-on' VSAT satellite communications. We have yet to see, other than very specialized areas, applications in the maritime industry that require an 'always-on' connection.
One concern I have is that the current inherent redundancy that is built into de-coupled processes, will disappear if 'always on' is adopted without careful attention being given to the processes themselves. Without this, and therefore the effective use of bandwidth, value enablement will suffer and potentially ill-conceived and inefficient deployments will take place. There is no such thing as always-on, and the environment--mid-Atlantic or other ocean--is not comparable to the operating conditions most of us are familiar with.
What changes do you expect to see in the coming years that are related to mobile communications in the maritime industry?
The introduction of Inmarsat FleetBroadband will, or at least should, send the application providers back to their drawing boards. Cost-effective bandwidth, especially with the data rates now becoming offered, is a double-edged sword. As costs go down, there is a tendency to stop putting effort into ensuring the effective use of resources. Not only is this wasteful, it can also lead to a lack of visibility and eventually, knowledge of the underlying business processes and value drivers. With the new Inmarsat platform, application vendors have an opportunity to present us with a new generation of applications to build value on this platform. Alternatively, they could just stop worrying about how much data they send and, more importantly, ask themselves why they are sending it.
Crew [social] calling costs from vessels have reduced dramatically over the last few years. Crew e-mail is provided free of charge by all of the major shipping operators, and new offerings such as GSM on board by Blue Ocean Wireless, are becoming available.
WiMax is starting to be offered by major ports to allow vessels to connect whilst approaching port. This, of course, greatly reduces the cost of communication and lengthens the period for which a vessel may be online. Very recently, Singapore announced plans to build a WiMax network that will allow vessels to connect whilst they transit the Singapore straits.
What keeps you awake at night?
It is questions like how do I make better use of our IT investments, how do I get business departments to buy into BPO and BPR, how to better support Wallem Group's clients, and how to ensure Wallem stays ahead of competitors cost effectively.
In short, value! Value realization, reduction of waste, effective use of resources, reduction in unnecessary rework of systems or processes, are the key concerns. The key operational systems in the Wallem Group must operate effectively and efficiently, to the point where they are taken for granted. This, however, can lead to them being undervalued and ignored until a major upgrade is required. This is wasteful and should be avoided by ensuring a good portfolio management is in place and properly funded.
Change management within the business units brings its own challenges as re-engineered processes and offshoring are implemented. Ensuring that the business units see IT as a value enabler, rather than a cost center, is the key, and this takes work on both sides of the fence. IT must speak the language of business and not the other way round.
If you were not a CIO, what would you be and why?
I enjoy challenges and teamwork. In 2003, I started sailing again, having not sailed since leaving school. We purchased a small yacht in 2004 and having promised my wife that I would only cruise or sail socially, I ended up entering my first off-shore race in early-2005. The preparation for, and participation in, the Hong Kong-to-Philippines San Fernando Race was an eye-opener for me. The teamwork required and experienced when competing in a race, is something I try to emulate during the projects we implement. Good forward-planning, sticking to the plan whilst being flexible in delivery, is a necessity in off-shore racing and good practice in IT delivery.
There is a saying that 'worse things happen at sea', and from personal experience, this is true. The ability to think under pressure, to recover from setbacks and, most importantly, to be patient and keep one's sense of humor are all prerequisites to surviving off-shore. Whilst the personal physical danger may not be, well at least one would hope, the same during an IT project, these are none the less required skills.
So if I were not a CIO, I would like to have been a professional off-shore sailor.
Editor's note: Patrick Slesinger and his team are busy completing the implementation of a new enterprise resource planning system. Read what else is on Wallem's tech agenda in ZDNet Asia's IT Priorities special report.