ROI Guide

The emotional benefits of going digital


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Indeed, feelings are likely the last thing that captains of the seafood industry think about when considering digital transformation. Yet, feelings—visceral, raw emotions—are exactly what drive decisions in this industry, especially around technology.

We’re in a high-risk industry, given that commodity prices fluctuate almost as wickedly as the weather, downing both fortunes and fishing vessels, respectively. Fear is a dominant emotion. 

Take, for example, vessel monitoring systems (VMS). Many are outfitted with emergency locators, hoping that harvesters’ fear of sinking will overcome their fear of surveillance to spur adoption of tracking technologies. 

Our emotions drive decision-making with the rationale side of our brain later justifying our initial cognitive bias.  In the words of psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.”

So, it’s time we talk about our feelings. 

Besides fear, the other dominant emotion I see when visiting seafood processing plants is anxiety which, interestingly, is what we feel when we try to suppress our emotions. That shouldn’t be a surprise in a supposedly stoic industry. Fear and anxiety are fed by seafood’s unpredictability of both supply and quality. 

It’s a particularly anxious existence for quality control managers who need to navigate a byzantine number of certifications, regulations, and specifications. A QC manager once showed me an Excel spreadsheet with 352 fishing vessels (rows) with 42 different brand specifications (columns) to which vessels had to comply. That generated a spreadsheet with 14,784 cells. The QC manager had to manually check each production order against this compliance matrix, a mind-numbing and stressful ordeal. 

No surprise, mistakes happened which were costly, both financially and emotionally. Shipping containers can be subject to higher tariffs or rejected by customers for non-compliance. The QC manager was reduced to tears at times. 

Part of the problem is a lack of trust. I’ve had CFOs tell me they don’t trust data coming from production managers who, in turn, tell me they don’t trust supervisors overseeing data collection on the plant floor. Production yields inexplicably fluctuate, aggravating relationships and eroding trust. 

In the past few years, I’ve met hundreds of managers at seafood processors. What is their emotional reaction to digital technologies? One might think it’s overwhelmingly negative, given how analog the industry is. However, it’s the exact opposite.

Technology is now so ubiquitous that most managers intuitively understand how it could help their jobs. Accurate, real-time digital data generates transparency and, in turn, trust. Artificial intelligence can be used to catch errors and immediately validate whether work is being done correctly, reducing the fear of mistakes. Live dashboards and automated alerts make managers feel more in control. Digitization can eliminate a lot of paperwork, alleviating managers from drudgery and boredom. All of that feels good. 

Ironically, the IT department often reacts negatively to digital transformation. A third-party technology provider can often expose IT managers to heightened scrutiny, since most seafood companies don’t have the technical depth to understand or challenge their own IT managers. New digital technologies could also increase workloads and complexity for IT managers, generating stress. 

In digital transformation, people typically fear the “transformation” part more than the “digital.” Some people just fear change, digital or otherwise. Overtime, there’ll be less technophobia, especially among younger “digital natives.”

Another type of technophobia is the fear of losing one’s job to a robot. However, I’ve had several factory directors in Southeast Asia express their fear of the shrinking labour pool as fewer Thais, Indonesians and Filipinos want to work in seafood processing. Companies struggle to fill positions. Furthermore, artificial intelligence isn’t advanced enough to truly take over high-skilled positions. At this point, AI is more like a digital helper to make you smarter, quicker and more productive. (Read this Harvard Business Review article for more.)

A final core emotion that should be mentioned is disgust, a survival instinct to expel something toxic to us. For example, terrible smells and hot, humid environments are disgusting and, unfortunately, are often associated with seafood processing. However, I don’t think these physical conditions are a limiting factor in recruiting the next generation of leaders to the seafood industry.

Many millennials are searching for deeply meaningful work, and what’s more meaningful than producing food for humanity. However, a factory manager in a tuna cannery in General Santos, Philippines, once explained to me the challenges recruiting students from technical colleges into entry level management positions. Many students were put off—perhaps even disgusted—by the company’s archaic IT systems, outdated thinking and dreary paperwork. This manager thought adopting more digital technologies could help to inspire young graduates into a seafood career.

And that’s what technology should do, inspire us to achieve a better future. 


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