Learning, Adapting, Prospering

By Dionysios Tsilioris, Member, ICS
July 16, 2019

Our world has profoundly been shaped by what academia and historians alike often classify as the three Industrial Revolutions. Humankind first managed to harness the power of steam. We then succeeded in understanding the all-important principles of electricity and how to utilise the properties of charged particles to our benefit. More recently, we managed to delegate tasks of ever-increasing complexity to the computer. Naturally, the question that often arises is what's next?

The summer of 2019 marks the 50-year anniversary of the first Moon Landing. Earth-bound as most of us are, we certainly have a lot to learn by taking a closer look at the journey of the three American astronauts back in the July of 1969. In fact, NASA executives in the 1960s had a rather steep learning curve as they were the first to be confronted with the enormous operational challenges, organisational conundrums, and logistical complexities essential to achieve a feat of that magnitude.

Putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon and returning them and their fellow crewman, Michael Collins, safely back to Earth stretched the capabilities of scientists and managers alike, and subsequently led to a wave of advancements in nearly all fields of human study. Space was then the new frontier. Only now, half a century later, that the amount of data and the volume of the workflow are exponentially increasing do managers find themselves in the shoes of the then NASA executives.

Addressing the question posed initially – whether we can guess the nature, let alone the impact of the next Industrial Revolution – there is a constant we can count on. The access to reliable, well-organised and curated information will be the driver of future firms' competitive advantage. In that respect, data is not the "new gold" nor the "new oil". Accumulated raw data and piles of information have no intrinsic value unless they are suitably processed, assessed and acted upon.

In that respect, information-intensive work environments are thus expected to endorse technologies that will enable human capital to focus on high-level revenue-earning activities requiring human intellect instead of concentrating on mundane, monotonous tasks. The software can perform the tedious task of processing and sorting voluminous information packages faster than the human, operating with infallible efficiency. Combining the deeply human capacity for abstract thought and structured reasoning with the rigour and the precision of the machine is to be able to harness the best of two worlds.

In an industry such as the shipping one, the role of the collector, assessor and disseminator of information is routinely undertaken by the broker, i.e. a specialist intermediary and expert negotiator with an unmatched proficiency in their respective field. Can this model – can this profession uphold its necessity in the face of the intelligent e-brokers?

Thoughts often give way to mere aphorisms. Whether the advent of machines is indeed capable to cause Schumpeterian of creative destruction where jobs are lost only for better ones to emerge with the upturn of the economy is indeed largely debatable. What we can conclude however is that people and machines work more efficiently when they work in tandem.

The discussion surrounding freight brokerage platforms is therefore not one of substitution – one of man against machines of unrivalled intelligence – one where our brethren remains ossified in anachronistic practices while self-learning algorithms propel themselves to the future. It is rather a process where we learn to embrace and utilise the new.

Physical brokers and platforms will co-exist. Platforms will rely on humans for the vitally important input of information – for control, maintenance and marketing. This only reinforces the widely held belief that brokers, and indeed for that matter any professional, are as good as their recordkeeping and sources of information are.

The prerequisite for the synergy between individuals and intelligent systems is after all twofold. Valuable human input and a good working knowledge are required to activate and maintain the full potential of advanced software so that professionals can avail themselves of the existence of practical technological applications. Evidently, tech-focused tools, data, and tailor-made information sets are no panacea on their own.

As the team of scientists that put the man on the Moon, decision makers of tomorrow will not find it worthwhile or even possible to effectively monitor themselves every little bit of the realm of their business. Delegation is now a task largely for the computer.

A future where an endless array of zeros and ones negotiates on our behalf by playing zero-sum games ad infinitum is and will probably remain only a grim dystopia, whether in shipping or any other aspect of life.

The processing power of the Apollo Guidance Computer – responsible for the guidance and navigation of the Apollo Command Module – pales in comparison any modern smartphone. Since then the effect of technology on how we do business, how we communicate and how we market our products and services has been, to say at least, incalculable. Fixing a vessel on a digital platform might actually not be as ground-breaking as its accompanying connotations suggest.