Digital collaboration: get ahead, fast?


Byline: Christian Roeloffs

Recently at a conference for freight forwarders everyone jointly agreed: if you're the fastest to quote, you win the customer. What astonished me was what I heard in a conversation afterwards! "We are working in shifts now, 16 hours per day, to make sure we can quote fast and win new deals," said one of the present forwarders. I was surprised that putting in more hours to send emails back and forth is a better solution for shipping companies than digitizing collaboration and automating tasks. The banking system solved this issue years ago with the introduction of the SWIFT system: a standardized banking system that enables companies which had never worked with each other before to transfer money on a global scale at no risk.

In shipping, we're still way behind the curve.The newly formed Digital Container Shipping Association has taken the first timid steps to promote data standards in shipping because they believe in close collaboration between the different stakeholders.The underlying rationale for this collaboration is typically 2-fold: (a) Margins are still depressed due to overcapacity and (b) customers demand more and more streamlined services. Although costs for technology are consistently decreasing, our industry is generally considered to have been slow to adopt digital approaches. Of course, companies collaborate across company borders, mostly through emails and networks; but isn't it extremely inefficient and unscalable, especially in times where this could be automated to be done within seconds instead of days?

What holds SMEs back from digital collaboration?

We have noticed that especially small and medium-sized companies are either stuck in their traditional mindset or simply don't know how to start with digital collaboration. Why is that so and how do companies overcome this conundrum?

1- Companies are afraid to share their data

People have to overcome their traditional industry mindset first, as a highly competitive attitude makes collaboration with competitors exceedingly difficult. Most companies don't want to share their data because they think it's their secret and crucial for their business but most 'data' is non-sensitive. Consider container movements, position updates forecasts and contact information of local agents. Of course, crucial information about e.g., my commercial terms with my vendors should not be openly shared! However, sharing operational data means exchanging information that...

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