Fronting an electronic revolution
By Julian Bray
For the past eight years, Alexander Goulandris has led what has become almost a personal crusade to do away with paper bills of lading — and now he believes his company has finally developed an electronic system that will appeal to everyone.
Shipping has long had a love-hate relationship with new technology. Shipping people love the way it speeds up trade but hate any threat to traditional practices.
Shipbrokers love instant messaging but hate the threat of online matching of ships and cargoes that could wipe out large chunks of their commission.
Shipowners love constant communication with their vessels but masters hate the spectre of an electronic “spy on the bridge”.
Everyone loves their mobile phone and Internet but hates the emergency call at 3am.
Despite applications of modern communications technology being seemingly everywhere today, there remain a few pockets of resistance that remain frustratingly difficult to crack.
No issue has proven more complex to solve than taking bills of lading from the paper-based technology of the 19th century and migrating them to an electronic format suitable for 21st-century business.
Solving the problem has not only proved a technological headache, it has proved an expensive one too. An estimated $250m has been spent by various initiatives over the past decade trying to come up with an “e-bill” of lading.
Cynics may say that if the issue has been so hard to solve, then maybe it is not a problem at all. Perhaps paper-based bills of lading are impossible to improve upon?
But surely this is denying the inevitable, argues Alexander Goulandris, who is leading what has become almost a personal crusade to migrate key shipping documents to electronic platforms.
Bills of lading do not normally create much excitement in a world where clinching a deal often attracts far more attention than its fulfillment. So it is easy to forget just how central such documents are to the very act of shipping each and every cargo being loaded onto a vessel anywhere in the world.
It is their importance as the legal title to the cargo that has made the crusade toward doing away with paper such a long and tortured journey.
Paper documents can be signed, counter-signed, corrected and re-written where necessary without the need for software, Internet connections or login passwords. They are legally-binding documents in just about every jurisdiction and everyone understands their value.
Goulandris, whose company essDOCS (essDOCS) has been working on the issue since its formation in 2003, believes they have just about cracked the problem and that the time is now right for the industry to move to electronic documents.
“In five years’ time, if people are looking back, they’ll say: ‘That was the point [of change] — it seems to me a lot longer ago that we were dealing with paper’,” he said.
He added: “I think the transition will be much faster than people expect and I also think, as quite often happens when you go through a transition of this sort, that people will look back and say, how did we ever work with paper?”