As we are about to start off this new year, it has all the indications of being shaped or maybe even defined by the pandemic last year. Last year’s events forced us to change out of necessity so that we would be able to survive in the very short term. Many are suggesting that how we were working at the end of 2020 is the new normal, which I do not believe it is. Many of the changes that were forced upon us with the changing global environment required us to cobble together something that allowed us to continue working, but these were created to just get the team to continue working ASAP.
These necessary initiatives have leap-frogged our industry into the digital world by years but, more importantly, have shattered many assumptions that leaders in our industry had, which held us back. However, just because we use more digital technologies does not mean we are a digital company/industry. This year will require many companies to really think about what it means to be a digital organization.
One initiative that was imperative for us to continue working was to allow many of our team members to work remotely. For some organizations, it was easy, but for most in our industry, it was a heroic effort. In general, it was amazing how fast and well this worked for many. This was one area where previous assumptions that “there is no way it was possible” were shattered. However, the goal of “keeping the doors open” was driving this temporary goal.
Having our workforce work purely remotely, or even transition to a hybrid strategy, as a sustainable way we run our businesses will require some more holistic changes to how we run our businesses. There are some people that work well remotely and have an environment that allows them to work just as effectively from home; however, some are not able to work this way for a long duration. If this remote environment, or even hybrid environment, is going to be part of your strategy, then this may change the skills and type of people you need for your team, which directly changes how you hire and build your team members. Also, having managers or leaders in this environment require a different skillset, so being able to adapt your understanding and clearly defining your needs for the future will change many aspects of your business.
If the remote worker is something that we want to be part of our future digital world, then this also may affect how we work with temporary sub-contractors, especially in the design and engineering disciplines. I talked about how the future of sub-contractors may be different in the future in my blog Shipyard Outsourcing Transformation, which may change the way we treat them and include them in our business. In short, we may hire these temporary subcontractors and incorporate them into the business just like a remote employee rather than sub-contracting to an external company that uses their own tools, processes and passes the “deliverables” over the wall when they are complete.
Working in our industry requires so much collaboration between hundreds of stakeholders and departments. The tools that we are now using (mainly because we were forced to) are powerful, but for us to be able to use them long term, we will have to learn how to collaborate (not just communicate) virtually.
There are so many virtual meetings these days, which exceed all the time we were in meetings we had before. Having more meetings is not necessarily good or makes us better collaborators as I am not sure we have gained the experience of being effective virtual communicators. Even before the pandemic, we all know that many of the meetings that we had were not very effective or could at least accomplish the same goal in ½ the time. This seems to be even a bit worse in the virtual world. Communicating key issues now requires a 30 minute virtual meeting with five people, while it used to be a quick conversation while getting coffee.
It is also important when having virtual meetings to use video as it allows more connection, engagement and attention. But there are many organizations that do not allow to show video or even allow features to share their screen. This is understandable in many cases, but I do believe there will have to be some new strategies, tools or training to allow some form of sharing information virtually, even if it is just your face with the background blurred as a requirement.
Most of the communication and collaboration we have had over the last few months are more tactical and transactional. One of the biggest challenges with virtual collaboration we will have to learn is how to have creativity and brainstorming sessions. Being able to work through a problem/initiative/strategy with all relevant stakeholders in a boardroom with a whiteboard is a necessity for any business. How do we execute this in the virtual world? This is not a tools challenge as there are some good tools out there, but it’s more about our ability and mindset to use them.
I talked about the difference between communication and collaboration in my blog post A New Mindset for Communicating & Collaborating if you want more information.
Learning From Industry and Hands-On
There are many ways we learn today, and it is obvious that many of the traditional ways of learning will transition to some type of on-line learning. However, there are going to be some other types of learning that will have a different path as they cannot just be done virtually, at least with the way we are thinking today.
The amount you can learn from watching and working with an experienced veteran is argued to be the way to pass the most relevant information in the shortest amount of time. How we will replicate or even improve on this type of training is unknown. An example, great engineers and designer in shipbuilding usually credit their high achievements/skill on their previous interactions working closely with the production floor, especially when a problem occurs. Having the engineer or designer walk to the production floor to physically see the problem and work through the problem in a highly time-sensitive environment gains so much insight and real-world experience. Even before the pandemic, there was a trend where more designers and engineers are being disconnected from how the physical product they are digitally designing is made. This is definitely a negative trend that should not continue as the products that we are designing need to take into account the production requirements during the design, which is unique at every shipyard.
Future leaders will also need to gather knowledge and insights differently in the future. In the past, a lot of insights were gained from conferences, more specifically from networking with other leaders at these conferences. Many of these conferences and industry events are still happening virtually. While the content is great, we are losing the most valuable benefit of a conference, the networking and deep discussions with other leaders. Without building a strong network of other leaders in your industry is really going to diminish the ability to learn, grow and, more importantly, think differently.
Business & Digital Innovation
Every company was working on some digital innovations before this pandemic started, which allowed them to leverage their previous work and use this as an opportunity to accelerate it. In many cases, this acceleration was great; however, going a lot faster is not always good if there is an uncertain destination. Going fast is good and how we will need to work in the future, but many of us were planning on moving slowly. Transitioning to go a lot faster than you planned can have some significant issues, potentially years down the road.
There is discussion in other industries about how effective virtual inspections are. In shipbuilding, these will be the inspections and certifications that class organizations provide. Class definitely adapted very quickly, which is not surprising as they are one of the most innovative segments in our industry, as mentioned in another blog. Class was already doing some virtual inspections and certification before the pandemic, but it definitely accelerated during the last half of last year, which required them to move a lot faster than anticipated/planned. Now the question, if I draw it from other industries, is that there is no way of knowing if these virtual inspections are better or worse than physical ones in the short term. We will only be able to determine after several years if the virtual inspections we are doing today result in the same quality as past physical inspections. I do not want to suggest that they will not be, but simply that, for some activities we are doing today, we will simply not be able to see the entire effects until sometime in the future.
Many companies’ supply chains were under a lot of strain last year as we moved to a more digital world. Determining how we can work with our supply chain by more efficiently sharing information as well as continuing to having a personal relationship with our suppliers will be key. Partnerships with many of our major suppliers are more than just purely transactional. They are a relationship. This relationship creates a stronger foundation when an issue arises and needs to get fixed ASAP. How we will build and strengthen these relationships will be different in the future as well as creating new partnerships in the future will need to evolve.
There is no doubt that last year has really moved our entire industry forward in our digital transformation by several years. This forced push required us to “just get things working” so that we could continue to work. This year will continue to push forward with some of the digital transformation initiatives that we started.
The way that we are working today will not be the new normal. I am not even sure if the future normal will be somewhere in-between where we were at the beginning of 2020 and where we are today. It most likely will be completely different because many of the initiatives that we used was really allowing us to work remotely in the same way we are working today without looking too far into the future.
Our industry and companies will have to rethink many aspects of our business and how we can continue the digital progress that we have made. Even though we are more digital today than yesterday, we still have to transform our business to sustain the changes that we have already made as well as to continue to move fast.
Where last year was the digital transformational year, this year should be the business transformational year.