Digitalization trepidation: Turning words, worry into action

Jonathan Parkinson, senior manager of cargo information systems at Air Canada Cargo, chats with Henk Mulder, IATA’s head of digital cargo.

SINGAPORE — Much has been said this week about the sorry state of the air cargo industry’s alleged lack of digital savvy and reluctance to embrace new technology. For those fed up with such hand-wringing, the late-morning presentations in Wednesday’s Digital Cargo Track at the World Cargo Conference were a welcome tonic for air cargo professionals seeking practical advice on how to start their digitalization efforts without reinventing their businesses.

Boris Hueske, head of digital transformation for Lufthansa Cargo, began by extolling the virtues of the application program interface (API), which is the backbone of every modern digital cargo platform, but not necessarily at the expense of electronic data interchanges (EDIs) that many older cargo operations still rely on.

While saying that nothing is inherently wrong with EDIs, Hueske pointed out that they are simply far out of date — like using an old reliable mainframe computer from the 1980s instead of, say, a smartphone. “APIs enable next-level data exchange,” he said. “Compared to EDI, APIs make your data interesting. They can extend your customer reach by allowing you to connect to the  rest of the maketplace, using real-time data.”

Hueske said Lufthansa Cargo currently offers five APIs — two public (Shipment tracking, getRoute) and three private ones for clients (getCapacity, getRates smartBooking) — that allow customers unprecedented control of how they want to interact with the carrrier.

The key, he said, is to “start out quite small,” with APIs, and then “add complexity to it, but not to make it complex.The data should be consumable and in real-time, but not too complex.”

Brian Collins, chief technology officer for Accelya, said the key to making the leap to digital is to shift the focus away from the process and more on the overall customer experience. “Currently the airfreight landscape is fragmented and heavily siloed, with legacy systems always at the center,” he said.

“Digital cargo platforms reduce your time to the marketplace, reduce your time to data integration and, on the IT side, they can act as a Swiss Army Knife to get you out of trouble,”  Collins explained.

He also stressed that the “end user” of a digital platform could be your customers, but they could also be your employees. “You have to understand the pain points for all types of users before you can create a good user experience. Then you can re-define what ‘good’ looks like.”

Jonathan Parkinson, senior manager of cargo information systems at Air Canada Cargo, rounded out the track with a rousing call for the cargo world to focus on the “why” of digitalization instead of getting hung up on the “what” and the “how.”

“Why are we doing this in the first place?” he asked. “Because customers and employees want a quick and seamless digital experience.” He also emphasized the focus on meeting the needs of employees, since today’s 2-year-olds that can intuit the average iPad with ease, will be tomorrow’s warehouse workers In the next 15 years.

Parkinson also said companies need to encourage “experimentation and a chance to fail and learn about it.” Digitalizaztion, he said, “is a cultural change, but we look too much at the technical aspects.”

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