August 01, 2008

Opaque facades

A conversation is attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, in which Nehru enthusiastically exclaims, "Bapuji, the whole country is moving!"
Gandhi replies, "Yes, but in what direction?"

I would like to ask a similar question of our managers ashore in the maritime world.

The shipping world is moving, or appears to be. The right noises are being made on officer retention, safety, fatigue, criminalsation of the seafarer and other such burning issues. Unfortunately, a lot of these noises are like politician's speeches, full of high flown idealism, catch phrases, platitudes and declarations of intent: we should do this, we must do that to progress, we must work together, teamwork, procedures, we are a family… all these all sound wonderful to the untrained ear.

Talk, unfortunately, is cheap. And misguided effort is not progress.

I strain my ears to hear a simple statement such as, "Here is a major improvement we have made with regard to just one burning issue, and this is how it has worked, or this is why we think it will, and our benchmark for success will be a substantial drop in our seagoing officer attrition rates and a measured increase in job satisfaction amongst our seagoing employees."

I wait for such statements, but it is a bit like waiting for Godot.

Blinded (and blindsided) as the industry is with manpower shortages, it is but natural that most of the microphones are directed towards just this one issue. I suspect there is still a hopeful but dying school of thought that assumes that seafarers are not terribly bright and therefore will be taken in by the same clich├ęs' time and again. Good luck with your microphones, gentlemen; I sincerely hope you are right this time.

Seminars seem to be the order of the day. In the absence of any concrete measures, these are apparently an excellent means of interacting, solving problems and coming together as a family. Along with women and family clubs and such creative ideas, these should certainly fool some of us some of the time.
I do wonder, though. How many managers or owners are paying their seagoing officers wages to attend these gatherings and listen to bromides? They certainly seem to be paying themselves. (In this connection and not so long ago, I remember some of the same seafarers having to pay for the privilege of eating dinner with their bosses and listening to them at seminars, besides paying for flights and hotel costs, of course, in some of the same 'top' management companies.)

All supply and demand, right? Perhaps, which brings me to a related subject. The transitory nature of association between owners and floating staff, seminars and 'families' notwithstanding. Because, that is what it continues to be, this relationship, transitory.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to accept that there are no new ideas, and until we come up with solutions instead of banalities we should stop deluding ourselves and others. Let's be upfront about the supply and demand bit. Let's accept that we have run out of ideas, and that it is every man for himself.

Let's stick to increasing wages until the whole thing implodes in our faces and then we can go fishing.

Let's forget about wasting time and energy on ideas which have been done to death over many years and have not made any substantial difference. (Doing the same unworkable thing again and again makes one very good at, well, doing unworkable things.)

Let's not pretend any more.

Veeresh Malik, whom I quote here with his permission, says this much better. He makes a very valid point in an online merchant navy group when he writes that "the industry should tell it like it is: tell sailors there will be no shore leave, no families and no respect demanded or given between anybody ashore and afloat, but only amongst the crew"

Elaborating, he is making a point, questioning the "respect" bit, given short timelines and a purely transactional relationship. So, better if shippies on board are put into their isolated little cocoons, and some sort of give none/get none kind of relationship emerges.
(That works well assuming the ship itself is 100A1. But when the owner expects the crew to present a ship which is not 100A1 as such, then the score starts changing, right?)

Unfortunately, like many of us used to an autocratic setup at sea, our industry too does not take such criticism very well, and in fact often treats it as blasphemy. The industry is not run in a terribly transparent manner to begin with. In addition, the transitory nature of employment does not lend itself to the chances that seagoing staff will be interested or concerned in either a company's structure, budget, shore procedures or future plans. Sometimes the very nature of ownership is hidden from the seafarer, in a post box somewhere.
The veil is not encouraged to be lifted anyway. The opaque curtain remains. The status is well and truly quo.

A seafarer's criticism, however constructive, is usually downgraded, compartmentalised and dismissed as frustration and the output of a less than intelligent labourer. This is because managements see themselves clearly as the bosses who know best, never mind the hype about families, teamwork and all that jazz.

I hasten to add that there are notable exceptions to this; I have been corresponding with some managers who have responded to this column or my blog, displaying an understanding of the maritime manning business which is rare.
Rare as they may be, they are the people who will make a difference; I wish I was in a position to give them badly needed support.

It is my belief that, in contrast to non transparent ownership and management, senior officers on board have become (or have been forced to become) much more transparent over the years, thank God. Short manning surely has something to do with this, plus improved communications between ship and shore. With increasing regulations and greater preparation and paperwork required at sea prior arrival port, information has to be speedily disseminated by the Master to ensure that there are no problems while tied up at the berth. Transparency, therefore, is also mandated by circumstances, and leads to greater efficiency.
Could it also be (gasp) that seagoing staff is now more progressive (gasp) than its managers?

Coming back to the criticism issue, although it is allowable to criticise seafarers publicly in abusive language, calling them prostitutes (talk about fleeting relationships!), like a shaky pillar of the shipmanagement community did not that long ago, it is not preferable for the company concerned to publicly apologise. Hey, they say, members of our 'family' call each other streetwalkers all the time!

It is perfectly all right to be condescending and snidely derogatory of seafarers, their intelligence or commitment. (A good one currently doing the rounds is that a seafarer's job is not rocket science. I absolutely agree. And neither is arranging visas and tickets, which passes for shipmanagement quite often.). I have seen this happen numerous times. However, the faecal matter hits the fan when a manager is unfairly and similarly attacked by a senior seafarer. I have seen this happen, too. It isn't pretty.

Under usual (if not normal) circumstances, a seafarer may gripe about management on board, but, unless he is a senior officer not afraid to speak his mind, he really has no easy avenues of surfacing his opinions to the management in any constructive way. He can't effectively criticise them; hell, he can't even really suggest improvements to management style! (The 'management level' nomenclature added to his competency certificate is then made to feel like window dressing anyway).
The only recourse he does have is to quit, or refuse specific assignments which bring him in contact with people he would rather not work with. (I happen to think the second option is unprofessional, and I have stuck out my neck to say so.)

So, the opaque curtain remains. And so does memory.

Meanwhile, I wonder if there will ever be room in the maritime industry for somebody who thinks he can make a difference to HRD, and raise it above the level of a fish market on a Sunday morning.

And meanwhile, gentlemen, at the end of my virtual seminar here, I vote we disband the old boy's club, precisely because it is old and outdated. I suggest we stop pretending that our interactive session here was anything more than a grievance redressal forum. In fact, let's do away with future seminars altogether, given our transactional relationship.

But before we go, just one thing. Somebody please tear down that opaque curtain; it’s a facade and too many are hiding behind it.


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