September 7th, 2020 - by Robert Best

Digital transformation is not new, and it’s not going away any time soon

Imagine keeping track of 4,600 of these - by fax!

My first digital transformation engagement was with BP Chemicals, way back in the Spring of 1996. I had just started working for DigitalPeople (which later became the Internet Applications Group), and my boss and I were invited to Sunbury to meet with the head of global logistics, who had a problem he needed solving.

The exact numbers elude me now, this being 25 years ago, but he told us that BP Chemicals had offices in something like 140 ports around the world and about 4,600 tankers under charter. Keeping track of all of these was what he described, in distinctly non-technical language, as “a real ball-ache”.

Each ship could be in any one of a number of situations at any given time – waiting to load, loading, en route, waiting to off-load, and so on. Then there was the additional challenge of chemical management. A recently emptied tanker is ready to accept a new load; however, great care must be taken over what the new load is, exactly. Adding most chemicals to a tanker that still contains traces of a different chemical will generally work out just fine. Getting it wrong, though, leads to a big blue flash, an enormous bang, and literally weeks of paperwork.

In 1996, most big companies barely even knew they had an intranet, and many executives we met were still getting their emails printed out and delivered to their desks by a secretary for a hand-written reply to be added, which the secretary would then dutifully type up. At BP Chemicals, their ship-tracking process was even more laborious.

Each one of the 140 port offices was responsible for their home port plus a specific area of ocean, and all the BP Chemical ships thereon. Each office would track these ships on a locally-held spreadsheet, showing important information like location, status, cargo, destination and so on.

Every Friday, every office would print out their own spreadsheet and fax it to Sunbury. Then, some poor sod would have to take the information from 140 faxes and transfer it into the centrally-held database. Then, some other poor sod (or perhaps the same one) would make 140 copies of the updated database onto 140 floppy disks (remember them?) which would then be couriered, overnight, out to each port office, so they could manually update their own, locally held records. Which meant everyone was more or less up to date until the next Friday came along, when the whole rigamarole started all over again. They’d been doing this for years.

We suggested a very simple solution in which the master database would be held on the BP intranet, and each port office would have access through a unique username and password, thereby removing the need for locally held spreadsheets, and enabling the database to be constantly updated in real time, rather than just once a week. Our client was somewhat concerned about taking such a huge step into the 21st century, but when we told him “we’ll take away all the faxes and floppy disks”, he nearly cried with relief.

It took our developers about a week to put the system together, and we charged him three grand. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some updated version of this self-same system is still running on their intranet to this day.

And that’s part of the problem. There’s a certain sense in the idea, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but with digital technology, that can lead to outdated software and systems being kept in use long, long after they should have been replaced. From my time in banking, I know that some of the software that is still running in at least two of the Big Six banks is written in long-dead computer languages on ancient mainframes by programmers who are also long dead, and they have no one who knows anything about how they work. I’ll write more on this in a future blog.

Digital must be a strategic enabler that creates the best possible outcomes for your customers. If you have one or more systems or processes that have fallen so far behind the curve that they are a) costing you time and money, b) no longer serving your overall strategy and / or c) no longer serving your customer as well as your competitors can, then get in touch today. We are your ‘critical friend’, and we’re here to help.

Incidentally, ship-tracking is now something you can do from your own living room, should you so wish, on sites like this one.

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