Navigating the turbulent waters of standards

The digitisation and integration of processes promises to optimise services provided by the international moving sector. This is a complex process – but one that is being made more straightforward by the advent of industry standards, writes Alvaro Stein

According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a cross-border transaction (such as an international move of HHGs) involves multiple actors and requires, on average, the exchange of 36 documents and 240 copies. Today, fewer than one per cent of trade documents are fully digitised. While COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies by businesses there remain significant barriers that prevent the complete digitisation of trade-related processes.

In a ‘naturally’ evolving technology uptake scenario, businesses have focused on improving internal processes first, such as quoting, surveying, preparing inventories and so on, because this is what they can control and change.

This internal optimisation adds tremendous value, reducing operational costs and improving the service quality. However, in supply chains in general and in moving in particular, a shipping service covers many companies and countries. Partners need to collaborate and coordinate to move goods, and those interactions between companies remain mostly extremely human – and document-intensive.

A natural step in technological evolution is to automate and digitise those human and document-intensive interactions. This requires sharing data and integrating systems – a lot easier said than done.

In our industry, we exchange shipments with dozens or hundreds of other companies. Automating these interactions would require each company to build in integrations with everyone else.

How much integration will be necessary for our industry to be ‘interoperable’ (whatever this means) as a whole? Well, let’s do some complicated maths.

In general, there are Nx(N-1)/2 connections for a network of N systems. So, if there were only four companies, it would take six integrations to connect. 

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say there are just 50 different systems (including RMCs, auditors, moving companies, software vendors, van lines, and in-house legacy systems). Using the same formula, this will require 1,225 one-to-one integrations! Building one is expensive and burdensome; building 1,225 is just not realistic. We must find a different approach.

One of the most time-consuming stages of an integration project is reaching a consensus about the data to be shared, its format, and means of exchange. So, it is natural and necessary to create industry-wide digital standards that everyone can adopt.

The challenge of sharing data and achieving interoperability also exists in the broader supply chain, and standardisation bodies and projects have popped up everywhere. The advent of blockchain technology has only fuelled the trend.

Each project defines its specific scope, but inevitably overlaps with many others. The standards landscape has been growing, getting turbulent, and increasingly challenging to navigate.

The moving industry is no exception. A milestone was achieved in 2019 with the formation of the Moving and Mobility Standards Alliance (MMSA), with the participation of FIDI, IAM, OMNI, and ERC. I participated in forming the Alliance and am a member of its first steering committee.

Understanding the need for a unified global effort, in February this year, the WTO and the International Chamber of Commerce released the Standards Toolkit for Cross-border Paperless Trade (www.wto.org) This gives an overview of existing standards to help drive adoption, identify potential gaps, and promote interoperability. It covers basic ISO date/time standards to more complex ones like the eBL released by the Digital Container Shipping Association.

The world is moving at lightning speed towards full digitisation, and we will be left behind very quickly if we don’t react quickly and together. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel – many solutions have already been hammered out by others. We just need to get the whole thing rolling, and in the same direction. 

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