Changing Classrooms for Changing Class Societies

By Joseph Keefe

The role of IACS classification societies has evolved over time. Career development within those organizations has also changed. At the forefront of this movement is the American Bureau of Shipping. 

Mark A. McGrath is the Corporate Learning Officer at Houston-headquartered American Bureau of Shipping. The job description is a relatively new one – just three years old – and, ABS could have given him any one of a half dozen titles. In truth, the semantics of what to call the individual in charge of shaping the employees of one of the world’s largest Classification Societies is less important and goes much deeper than just a name.
McGrath told MarPro in April, “This was a position created approximately three years ago to come in and oversee the revamp, and to oversee the learning process at ABS. So basically, I’m in the position that I run the learning steering committee and that reports up to the executive committee, and that’s part of aligning the interests of the various stakeholders in the learning process, and then, of course, to take that and crystallize it into course development and the learning objectives we’re working on.”
Significantly, and immediately prior to his current position, he served as President and Chief Operating Officer, ABS Pacific. Joining ABS in 1981, he has spent most of his career in Asia with multiple assignments in Singapore, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. The SUNY Maritime graduate brings 30 years of experience to his current role as well as certifications from Harvard Business School’s Management Development Program. The ABS Corporate Officer also brings focused ideas as to where this global organization should head next in terms of developing the next generation of maritime subject matter experts.
“I signed on in ABS in December of 1981. And interestingly enough, how the world turns, you never know. They told me that I would go to Japan for a 3-month training program, and then I would come back,” says with a smile, continuing, “Well, 33 and a half years later, I completed the training program, I got back, and then I inherited training.” Along the way, however, McGrath has experienced virtually almost every facet of ABS market penetration. Starting as a surveyor, McGrath also spent time in shipbuilding (Japan), ship repair (Korea), VLCC repair (Portugal), column-stabilized drilling units (back to Japan again) and then a manager’s position in the Philippines. Along the way, there isn’t much he hasn’t done.
More stops in Korea, Singapore and China punctuated a career which has landed him at the Corporate Officer level. Finally, and in a meeting with nearly 100 ABS executives, he opined that ‘the training programs were not effective and that ABS should really be following the model of what he had done in Asia.’ This led him to where he is today. He explains, laughing, “Guess what? My next job was chief learning officer.”

Learning at ABS = Clear Business Results
Before McGrath’s arrival in Houston, ABS was a traditional 95% instructor-led training establishment, without a learning management system, or for that matter, a professional learning development team. Under McGrath’s guidance, however, that’s no longer the case. “We’ve set up a whole learning organization which, in addition to our subject matter experts and content developers, we have a learning architecture, we have degreed people with learning degrees, and what they do is help us format a systematic – what they call “sticky method” for the learners.” McGrath says that the days of “death by PowerPoint with jet lag” are a thing of the past.
The ongoing effort includes education to not only ABS surveyors, but the clients as well. ‘Courseware’ is then designed to a particular goal, the course is rolled out, and then, business results are compared to the design of the course. McGrath adds, “Learning should have clear business results. That’s generally what we do: try to show business impact to the various stakeholders of the company so that then they’re on board with the program and continue with the support.” The key change, insists McGrath, involves determining what the learner needs, as opposed to what the company needs. Beyond this, it involves measuring the impact of training on the performance of the employee.
The ABS learning management system now employs evaluations where corporate staff can go out and mine the data or performance in various programs with the goal of improving the performance of the employees.

Building the Ideal Surveyor
Who is the average ABS surveyor? Actually, it might not be for everyone, but at the same time, it could also be anyone. McGrath, for one, embraced the nomad life. “I love it and I prefer the knapsack and the suitcase, so that’s a way of life kind of thing. But I think in general we could say that, ‘Yes, this is a job that requires some rotation.’ And one of the reasons for that is you are exposed to so many different avenues of life. So for instance, nowadays if you went to Korea, it’s predominantly new building; there’s no repair. If you want repair experience you’d have to go to Singapore, China, or Dubai, or the other areas. So in general, for a career, it’s good to go see the different pieces.”
According to McGrath, in the past, it would take as much as five years to develop the average surveyor. Today, ABS is looking to compress that process down to about 3 years. And, says McGrath, there isn’t necessarily a typical blueprint for who will make the best surveyor, but there are three basic components that all of them will absolutely need. He insists, “For me, it is integrity and trust. You’re making decisions which impact the maritime industry, and that moves at a pretty quick pace. So, I think one of the things is responsibility, but to do that, you need integrity and trust, and that’s what I look for aside from the type of degree that the person has, and so forth.”
Today’s ABS internal training program is laid out not so much on the background of the individual, but towards the different career slots available. McGrath says that the intent is to allow ABS to put together training for the desired career path that the employee wants to go in. Eventually, this will entail some innovative and forward-thinking training techniques. For ABS, this will definitely involve the “virtual ship.”

The Virtual Ship – and more
The Virtual Ship is an ABS training initiative which is in the early development stage. Quite simply, McGrath says, “The object of the ‘virtual ship’ is to allow people to ‘fail forward.’ We don’t want people making mistakes on the job; we want to give them a simulated environment to go practice it. We’ve done some simulation in some of our business-type training courses for new managers, first time managers and so forth. This allows them to make mistakes in the classroom and take home the concept. We just stood up the whole new team and this is one piece. We’ll eventually look at making it into a simulation model.”
In the meantime, much has changed in the three years that McGrath has served in his latest role. The course ‘compression’ that McGrath touts has removed redundancy and aligned training to mirror the needs of the employee, as well as his or her particular period of career. He explains, “One of the objects is to reduce the time to proficiency and help people get up and get out and start working on their in-depth, structured, on-the-job certification qualifications. And the idea is to improve consistency because in the past it wasn’t centrally-driven; divisions were doing training, a little bit separate, and there was a couple of basic courses here. Now we’re standardizing for the whole company, the levels of training as we go.”
The idea is this: standardization of training will ultimately improve delivery of service in the field. Coupled with a computer-based learning management system that tracks the assignment and the completion of learning, a view of the whole organization emerges for the training team. McGrath offers, “It is run so we can see in real-time what’s going on. That’s allowed us to do some really exciting things.”
Separately, a video capability has been integrated with a virtual classroom setup, which eliminates the need to fly the instructors and/or students back and forth. Beyond this, ABS academies based in Piraeus, Singapore, Shanghai, South Korea, and Houston bring the corporate standardized learning approach that much closer to the learner. Certain training that might involve experts which are located only in the head office can be beamed live to students around the globe.
And, like many other places, ABS is looking at the online version for some of its training needs. One class – an interactive, chemical tanker operations training course – involves 26-hours of training, developed in conjunction with the Maritime Academy of Malaysia. “It’s self-paced. The nice thing about the e-courses; you go at your own pace. This one has the maritime staff of the Malaysian Academy there in there. They run a little help box while you’re going through the course and you can actually chat with an instructor in real-time.”

Looking Ahead … and Behind
Mark McGrath was reluctant to talk about “the next big thing.” That’s a decision, he said, was for someone else to decide. That said; he also knows that he will be right in the middle of making that vision happen as it emerges. “Information flows at such a fast rate nowadays, and the change is so quick. Now, everything’s electronic. This world changes fast. People are thinking in small bits and chunks, and we align our training and development efforts to address that need. And that, for me, is the biggest challenge. And I always reiterate it to my staff: ‘Short, small chunks that they can use.’ And this is what we’re looking at now, how to get it down to that modality.”
With 200 offices spread around 70 countries, that’s no easy task. Part of the effort to integrate and standardize training therefore involves looking to that diversity and then trying to use what works best, and discard what does not. “We capture the best programs of the different countries, and then take that and export it on a corporate basis. And, we do that a lot,” says McGrath.
For now, McGrath gets pulled into 100 different directions – sometime all at once. We asked him what a typical day might entail for the ABS Corporate Learning Officer. It turns out there is no such thing. “I’m involved in a lot of different things; overseeing the development, and the structure of our learning environments,” he explained, continuing, “The next portion is the actual course development with the different working groups. We ask ourselves, do we have the resources responding to our requests to meet the development deadline?” Other duties include communication with the other executives in the company to determine business needs.
Because today’s modern classification society often bears little or no resemblance to the traditional notion of what they once were, so too has the training for these organizations evolved. ABS today is a multi-cultural organization involved with a myriad of important missions. Training here is forward looking, with an eye towards blending the best of the past into what will come next. For his part, McGrath’s enthusiasm for the job, 33 years past his first assignment for ABS in then far-flung Asia, is more than evident.
“It’s quite exciting. I like the way we’re moving things. It’s integrated. It’s blended. We have web-based courses, we have animation, and then we have job aids we develop sometimes just to help people along. Feedback – now we’re redesigning the classroom experience, all interactive. We’re learning by case studies: what happened and how do you fix it? Our people try to figure it out in the classroom in small groups, come back and then learn off of each other. I like that method. When you see people talking to each other, they’re learning the whole time they’re working.”
A visit with Mark McGrath has many key ‘take-aways’ but none more telling than the notion that it is the learning that’s most important when it comes to training. The process of making that a reality is also important. And, it takes a Corporate Learning Officer to put it all together.

(As published in the 2Q 2015 edition of Maritime Professional -

Maritime Logistics Professional Magazine, page 20,  Q2 2015

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