Commentary: Technology key to ocean differentiation?
Publically, ocean carriers have long been keen for their services not to be categorized as a commodity, even as rates drop to below cost levels on certain lanes, as carriers increasingly group together on fewer, but larger services, and as the apparent differentiation between slots on two ships seems to be nil.
But there’s one way that carriers may actually be able to merit that differentiated tag they seek — technology. Yes, technology.
I read with interest a post in mid-June from supply chain technology consultant Adrian Gonzalez on his Logistics Viewpoints blog. In it, he summarized some takeaways from a roundtable at the recent Manhattan Associates user conference.
“The ability for carriers to provide shippers with timely and accurate information is becoming a critical success factor,” Gonzalez wrote. “Simply put, a carrier’s IT capabilities matter. This is a key reason why non-asset-based providers are attracting so much attention these days, especially from investors. As one panelist put it, many of these non-asset-based providers are first and foremost technology companies, and they are outperforming asset-based carriers in this area.”
To be clear, the discussion was about domestic carriers.
But why shouldn’t this idea apply to international carriers as well? If a box is a box is a box, and a ship is a ship is a ship, why shouldn’t carriers concentrate wholeheartedly on differentiating themselves by technology? Some already have. More likely will.
At a June meeting of chief information officers at some of the world’s largest carriers and 3PLs, the portal-based ocean shipping e-commerce network INTTRA revealed some key areas on which it hopes the liner carrier industry will focus: data and analytics, e-commerce, and customer engagement.
Participants at the INTTRA-organized meeting were asked to consider data quality, a crucial building block where the business of ocean transaction could be improved. Beyond that, INTTRA talked about bringing ocean shipping up to date with e-commerce expectations, aiming at a manageable percentage of shipments to be “insta-confirmed,” for example. Not all the shipments right away, because that’s an unrealistic, unreachable target.
Lastly, INTTRA talked about letting customers decide the channel through which their interactions with carriers happens, and homogenizing that process, whether it be through the INTTRA portal, some other portal, through the carrier’s online booking platform, or through the customer’s own transportation management system.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what was discussed, and what will be discussed in the future.
Any and all of these advances would be welcome, and not just from the standpoint that ocean has lagged virtually every other transportation mode in terms of technological advancement. Because some carriers will drive toward these targets faster than others, there will be some gaps in capabilities between those competitors, and that will create differentiation by data, not vessel size or port rotation. This is the differentiation carriers all crave but have found it hard to achieve. - Eric Johnson