Dropping an Anchor – Strategic Thinking on Centralisation vs Decentralisation
The ship had just arrived in the pearl river delta after a long sea voyage, and this being the middle of the night there was no means of communication between the bridge and the forecastle except for flashing lights, a loud ships horn, or a loud voice though a megaphone.
We are talking about 100 years ago, the ship was relatively small and still ran on coal fired boilers. The communication between the ships bridge and the engine room was even more difficult. Coal fired steam boilers were very messy, and the steam engines were extremely noisy. Engine telegraph transmitted the bridge commands from the bridge to the engine – such as full steam ahead, or half ahead, or stop, or half astern. There being no brakes on the ship, the master was extremely good at anticipating the next movement necessary and transmit the command to the chief engineer in the engine room, as well as to the chief mate on the forecastle.
These two men had to be also extremely adept at not only understanding and following the orders from the ships bridge, but also as understanding the entire complexity of the situation in their respective stations and taking actions that would facilitate the final outcome – safely anchored ship without any damage to the ship, anchor, chain, propeller or any other ship.
For example, if the chain was running out too fast, the bosun, or chief mate would have no way to ask the master what was the depth of the water on the chart map or how high the tide was expected to be. They would have to use their own judgment to let go the anchor with sufficient force for it to hold the weight of the entire ship for several days, yet not too much force for it to take out the entire windlass with it. They were aware of other ships which accidentally let go anchor in far more depth than anticipated, and did not control the force in time so that the anchor chain just ran out and broke the windlass.
The chief engineer’s job was even more complex. He had no visibility of what was happening on the bridge, or the forecastle. Yet, he was somehow expected to anticipate the engine movement and respond in time for it to stop the ship so that the anchor can take hold and ship can swing into the tide.
The master relied on these two highly skilled operators who each has their own teams of skilled operators to help them.
And, then, the walkie-talkies were invented.
The master and chief mate are constantly talking to each other about the situation. The engine room can be reliably controlled from the navigation bridge so engineers in the engine control room stay there only for emergency coverage. Chief mate can now provide accurate information from the forecastle station, and master can issue precise instructions of what to do, and when. Chief mates, chief engineers and even masters do not need to be so highly skilled in the ‘art of anchoring’.
Reliable and constant flow of communication has made it unnecessary to anticipate and act. Co-ordination is a lot easier. Less need for contingency planning at each station.
Dropping an anchor, even in the middle of the night and/or in a busy channel with high current, wind or tide, has become a relatively far simpler exercise.
Communication technology always leads to possibilities of centralisation.
How much to centralise, and how to create a new operating system is an art.
The debate continues in every company.
How much to centralise? How to centralise? Why to centralise?
Strategic thinking is a must. No school can teach this – not even with the best case studies. Experience is the best teacher.