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This article first appeared in the November 2022 issue of the Maritime and Port Authority Academy’s ‘Horizon’ newsletter.

I would like to thank Dr Arnoud De Meyer, whose lecture on business ecosystems during the SMU course on “Digital Transformation” inspired my thoughts for this article.

I remember reading a quote which has stuck in my mind ever since – “Sharing among an entire ecosystem of innovative partners is a crucial step for modernisation.

While this sounds very nice in theory, what does it mean in practice and also, what does it mean today in the context of the maritime industry? An industry in which I am deeply involved, and which is undergoing change at a rapid pace.

In this article, I provide my views on what constitutes an ecosystem, the key ingredients that make it successful, how a different style of leadership is needed to build & grow a successful ecosystem, and finally, my own continuing journey of building & growing a maritime business ecosystem.

Ecosystem: starting from the beginning

Though it sounds like an intimidating topic, each of us works and lives in multiple ecosystems. 

The key feature of a successful ecosystem is that the value created by the group is greater than the sum of the individual values. This is important to remember, United We Win, and Divided We Lose.

There are multiple examples of business ecosystems, including Alibaba, Amazon and DBS Bank. In the maritime context, shipping pools such as the Maru-Klav Baumarine Pool of Torvald Klaveness, are a good example of a business ecosystem.

They bring competitors and a variety of other players together, along with other support ecosystem partners to deliver greater composite value to the end customers. The pool managers are both aggregators as well ecosystem leaders.

What makes an ecosystem successful?

Having established the concept of a business ecosystem, let us try to figure out what makes such an ecosystem successful. Remember, the ecosystem is a loosely coupled network, with diverse interests among partners. 

The very first ingredient for any business ecosystem to succeed is to scale up as fast as possible. To succeed, they must scale fast enough, and in such a diverse fashion so as to service the customer with multiple touch points and produce both value and stickiness. 

While we associate scaling up with start-ups, it is the same with a business ecosystem as well. The solution must be as widely applicable as possible.

Internally, the most important ingredient is a high level of trust. The partners should feel comfortable in sharing, learning and working towards a common goal to service the customer and to scale up. 

A lot of the ecosystem partners will also be operating in the same market and competing with the other partners of the same ecosystem, but they need to trust that the knowledge shared by them is secure enough and will not be misused. There is, of course, no guarantee of that.

Another key ingredient is deciding clear, high-level outcomes. The ecosystem must aim to solve a tangle and scalable pain point of the customer, be it visibility, resilience, efficiency, or value creation. 

Continuing with the example of Shipping Pools, it is focused on minimising geographical risk, maximising earning potential and providing access to market intelligence and analysis. This is what will eventually crystallise into a customer-centric offering.

Given the nature of ecosystem partners and the loose structure, clear communication is another vital ingredient. The communication extends to all stages. 

During the pre-formation stage, communicating the key desired outcome, the strategies involved, and the expectations from the partners in terms of deliverables is crucial. 

Once in operation, the update on the progress, key milestones achieved, and the path ahead needs to be communicated to maintain the participation and contribution of the partners.

Keeping the partners together – both in spirit and in person is another vital ingredient. The key is to have one or multiple collaborative platform(s), which could range from monthly meet-ups to digital platforms and dashboards to provide real-time updates to partners on the progress and achievements. The ability to provide feedback and act on it should be possible on such collaborative platforms.

Being an informal and loose network, the importance of good governance standards cannot be emphasised enough in an ecosystem.

Common standards and an ability to maintain and arbitrate any conflicts will not only create confidence in the ecosystem but also would be welcomed by the partners, who truly wish the solution to succeed.

The final ingredient, which is in fact, the most crucial one, is the ability to monetise the ecosystem offering. After establishing the Unique Selling Point or Keystone of the value proposition, without which the ecosystem cannot deliver value, monetisation can take many forms. 

This includes risk margins, licence fees, royalties, or other forms of fixed charges. Without a clear plan to generate a monetary stream, the ecosystem cannot operate in practice but is only a theoretical or conceptual exercise.

The person who brings all these ingredients together and drives the ecosystem forward is the ecosystem leader. An ecosystem leader needs to embody collaborative leadership but also go beyond that. 

We are talking about the ability to actively network, command the trust of the partners, develop a clear goal and strategy and embrace differences and diversity. Ecosystem leadership is a skill that future leaders will have to acquire, and the maritime industry is no exception.

Maritime Industry Ecosystems

Currently, there are two urgent themes requiring the maritime industry’s attention – digitalisation & decarbonisation. Neither of these can be holistically addressed by any individual company. 

To create any scalable solution, the industry will need to come together to create an ecosystem and, therefore will need ecosystem leaders to take them forward. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has taken a lead to set up a Global Centre for Maritime Decarbonization (GCMD) in Singapore. 

A global effort will require a completely different approach to leadership compared to managing a team within a single organisation.

WIZ Bulk’s Vision: an exciting journey

This brings me to my current position as the Chief Executive Officer of WIZ Bulk. A new company with a vision to simplify bulk shipping. WIZ, as a group, has been quite successful in container freight, air freight as well as land transport and warehousing.

However, its key differentiator is the digital platform (WIZ Freight) which is a one-stop solution for customers to secure container freights. It’s complicated to build a similar solution for bulk customers due to the fragmented and non-standardised nature of the bulk shipping industry. 

But WIZ has embarked on a journey to build an ecosystem with partners across the technology industry and the shipping space with a few clear objectives: simplify the processes, create a single platform for all relevant data required for decision making and automate as many processes as possible. 

The key aim is for the user to work with the system for the quantitative aspects so that their focus can remain on the qualitative aspects of the deal. Spending less time searching for information means more time to use and analyse. 

The larger vision of WIZ is to transform trade through technology. The larger ecosystem will encompass land transport, deep sea shipping, cargo handling, warehousing, and providing unparalleled visibility in real-time to customers. 

We are taking this forward through an ecosystem approach, currently at an early stage, but maturing in the coming months.

To conclude, the future is not going to be a competition between companies, but ecosystems. The sooner we learn to collaborate and equip the leaders in our industry with the ability to lead an ecosystem, the better it will be for all of us. 

The “life” of a “lifeline” industry is about to change forever!