Learning to Face Changes in Society
The business environment surrounding global logistics is changing significantly. Although the NYK Group’s main business is maritime shipping, which has a high entry barrier, the Group still finds itself in an era of uncertainty.
In September 2019, NYK established an in-house educational institution called the NYK Digital Academy. The aim is to help participants learn thinking methods that lead to innovation, accurately identify social trends, and form a mindset of taking on the challenge of establishing new businesses for the next step forward. Hideyuki Kumai, the manager of the Digital Academy Team, explains.
“Our objective is to develop personnel capable of taking on leadership roles with conviction in a society undergoing rapid change.”
About the NYK Digital Academy
The NYK Digital Academy began its seventh term in 2023 and has had a total of 75 participants to date. The curriculum currently spans an approximately nine-month term. Certain of the academy’s achievements are already being advanced toward commercialization.
One example is a project that evolved from a proposal made by third-term trainees. The proposal, centered on launch-site ships that launch rockets from the ocean, inspired the April 2023 establishment of the Advanced Tech and Space Business Development Team in the Innovation Promotion Group, with a view to commercializing the project. The team has begun joint research on the offshore recovery of reusable rockets with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd.
Another example is the Kaimei Project—Environmental DNA in the Ocean—which was proposed by second-term trainees. The project has evolved into the ANEMONE*1 Consortium, which comprises members from industry, government, and academia, including Tohoku University.
ANEMONE is a biodiversity observation network that obtains marine ecosystem data from the DNA of organisms in seawater. Currently, activities to collect seawater samples are being conducted on the high-speed roll-on/roll-off ship*2 Mashiu, operated by NYK Group company Kinkai Yusen Kaisha Ltd.
Learning Innovation and Putting It into Practice through ANEMONE
Second-term trainees Hiroko Sakuma and Taisuke Takasaki cooperated in a project that later became ANEMONE. Since then, they have been working to create a system for realizing environmental DNA sampling. Takasaki explains.
“The NYK Digital Academy exercise involves working in teams. Sakuma, Fujiwara, who is currently working overseas, and I formed a team. We began by discussing the theme of the exercise. We shared ideas that we often had and which we really wanted to realize in our careers. We looked for ideas that we all found interesting.”
Sakuma tells a similar story.
“All three of us were involved with ships in our respective business divisions. At around the same time, ESG management was being promoted within the Company. We explored various possibilities. After discussions, it was apparent that we all wanted to provide something that society truly needs by utilizing ship infrastructure, which is one of the Company’s assets.”
In exploring all kinds of ideas, the team focused on the fact that the ocean is a treasure trove of valuable but untapped data. As a result of meetings with many different people, they decided to concentrate on environmental DNA. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which was a catalyst for the project, suggested putting them in touch with like-minded parties. As a result, the team met with professors from Tohoku University and Hokkaido University. Sakuma recalls the situation.
“As research vessels can only obtain data from limited areas, the research professors were also keenly interested in obtaining data from a wider area. Initiatives that use maritime shipping infrastructure for seawater sampling are not found anywhere else in the world. Therefore, expectations were high with respect to making new discoveries.”
Toward the Realization of Seawater Sampling
As they moved forward with the project, the three faced many challenges. Takasaki describes their circumstances at the time.
“All of us were raising children. Sometimes, after feeding them and putting them to bed, we worked late into the night. However, since we were tackling a theme that we wanted to work on, we were able to work enthusiastically despite many difficulties. We were supported by a tutor,*3 who guided us as we identified and categorized the issues.”
Sakuma also recalls this period.
“We received rigorous training on repeatedly using the ‘yes, and’*4 approach of accepting the other person’s comments before making our own. As a result, we were always able to have positive discussions.”
Through discussions with researchers, the team learned that collecting seawater samples on board a ship is a more delicate process than they had imagined. Sakuma explains the preparations.
“For example, if you touch an intake sample barehanded, human DNA can easily enter it. As the ship’s wastewater also contains DNA from food and other sources, establishing the conditions and control methods took time. Implementation involves a lot of work for the ship’s crew members. So, we had to make arrangements such as gathering collaborators and preparing manuals. It was more difficult than we had imagined.”
It took almost one year from when the team first decided to cooperate with ANEMONE until the first seawater sample was collected. During this time, the team overcame numerous challenges before finally realizing the project, including requesting cooperation from Group companies and other departments, budget procurement, contracts with universities, the control of environmental DNA collection conditions, and consensus building with crew members.
During the 2021 trial collection in the ocean, 158 species of biological DNA were successfully collected. Members of the universities commented that the achievement was comparable with going from the earth to the moon and that, from an academic standpoint, valuable data had been collected. Sakuma describes the sense of achievement.
“The fact that the ship was able to contribute to understanding of ocean ecology and provide truly needed social value was a source of pride.”
On the other hand, Takasaki points out the tasks that remain.
“Originally, one of our goals was to commercialize the project, but it has yet to become a business.”
He emphasizes future possibilities.
“To make the project into a business, we need to discover ways of realizing profits from the assets that we will have after investments have been made and data has been collected. For example, tech companies such as Google and Microsoft have expanded their businesses by taking advantage of the vast amounts of data they have collected. While society needs ocean data, the infrastructure to collect such data is not yet in place. In the future, when this infrastructure has been established, we envision businesses also being founded centered on ocean data. We believe that our current activities are an investment in the future.”
Utilizing Lessons Learned at the NYK Digital Academy
Kumai stresses the academy’s purpose.
“The primary objective of the NYK Digital Academy is to help participants form a mindset of proactive cooperation with others while working to build a better environment.”
The program gave Takasaki a real sense of having acquired skills.
“It was a good opportunity for me to reconfirm that business cannot be conducted by a single person. There was very little that we could do on our own. So, we had to look for collaborators, both inside and outside the Company, and decide on the kind of help needed and whom to ask. The experience gained in my daily work was useful at these times. More than ever before, I have been able to adopt a mindset that is ready to venture into new areas.”
Sakuma also benefited from the training.
“At the NYK Digital Academy, any comments were always affirmed with the response, ‘Yes, and,’ which gave me confidence in what I said. For example, if I was in a management position, because most proposals tend to have merit, I would begin by being receptive to them. I learned that speaking without being constrained by precedent heightens the motivation of everyone and results in them moving in new directions.”
With each successive term, the range of employees eligible to participate in the NYK Digital Academy has steadily widened, and the number of participants has thus increased. Until the second term, when Sakuma and Takasaki participated in the program, trainees were nominated by the Human Resources Group. Beginning from the third term, however, employees became able to put themselves forward as participants. Further, in the fourth term the program was made available to Group company employees, with participants coming from Yusen Logistics Co., Ltd., NYK Business Systems Co., Ltd., and NYK Bulk & Projects Carriers Ltd.
Beginning from the seventh term in 2023, the program extended the age range of participants. Previously, the program targeted NYK Group employees in their mid-20s to early 30s as a general guideline. Now, however, younger employees who have been transferred at least once as well as directors and officers can participate. As a result, the academy has been transformed into a gathering place for a wide range of Group employees, from those in their late 20s to those in their mid-50s. Kumai outlines his expectations of the academy.
“We believe that a company must always keep abreast of changing times and continue to provide value to society. I hope graduates of the program hone their capabilities through friendly rivalry with each other, thereby advancing innovation and providing value that benefits society.”
The NYK Digital Academy’s training will foster personnel who initiate innovation, which will spread throughout the NYK Group and lead to the creation of further social value.
(Interview on August 4, 2023)
- *1 ANEMONE (All Nippon eDNA Monitoring Network)
A network for biodiversity observation that utilizes environmental DNA. Developed and operated under the supervision of Dr. Michio Kondoh (Tohoku University), ANEMONE was made available to the public as open data in June 2022, as sufficient data had been accumulated. This is the first time that a database dedicated to accumulating primary environmental DNA data has been constructed and made available to the public as open data.
- Adapted from the Digital biosphere website
- *2 A roll-on/roll-off ship is a cargo-dedicated ship that, like a ferry, allows trucks and other cargo vehicles to roll on and off it under their own power.
- Adapted from the Japan Federation of Coastal Shipping Associations website
- *3 A tutor is a person who supports trainees in various aspects of their studies. At the NYK Digital Academy, one tutor is assigned to each team when conducting exercises.
- *4 When various opinions are being discussed, opinions are first affirmed and accepted before being developed. This is one of the characteristic mindsets learned at the NYK Digital Academy.