Do you need a blockchain?

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This post was originally published in TechCrunch.

Blockchain technology is set to have a profound impact on a wide range of industries ranging from capital markets to the music industry. While some use cases may seem obvious, the technology is still surrounded by its fair share of hype and uncertainty. As a manager, how should you approach the subject, and when should you put your money where your mouth is and actively aim to implement blockchain technology?

According to Juniper research, 6 of 10 large corporations are either actively considering or in the process of deploying blockchain technology. Amongst companies who have reached the Proof of Concept stage, two-thirds (66%) expected blockchain to be integrated into their systems by the end of 2018.  The research claimed that those companies which would benefit most from blockchain include those with the need for (1) transparency in transactions, (2) a current dependence legacy storage systems and (3) a high volume of transmitted information.

Looking at the reasons for implementing blockchain, there is an inherent risk that managers eager to explore new technologies jump to conclusions without exploring alternative options. According to the research, systemic change rather than technological may provide both better and cheaper solutions to the issue at hand.

For many corporations, the go-to approach to investigate potential use-cases for blockchain is to look for inefficiencies in current processes.This approach is guaranteed to provide some results, but often the solution is to truly re-design legacy processes to fit a digital world rather than exploring new and unknown technologies.

One reason why blockchain often emerges as an answer to many problems is that it is easy to imagine high-level use cases of blockchain technology. However, as we venture under the surface of such use-cases, applying blockchain technology to a known problem is all too often a theoretical solution.

If we look at it, blockchain in its simplest form is an alternative to the traditional database. Blockchain differs from a database in many ways, but the most significant exception is the decentralized nature of blockchain. While a database requires a central authority to maintain and manage data, blockchain offers a decentralized approach to storage and verification of data. However, this feature comes at a cost. Blockchains in their current state (at least public ones) have some scaling issues, making them slower than traditional databases. In addition, users must pay a fee for each “transaction” on the database, which is fluctuating and unpredictable.

To make thing a bit more confusing, the term blockchain has become a bit diluted as the hype has continued to bloom. Terms like permissioned vs.permissionless and private vs. public blockchains are circulating, the term has become so widespread that is may lose some of its meaning.  Permissioned Blockchains are operated by known entities such as stakeholders of a given industry, where private Blockchains are operated by one entity. These approaches have become particularly popular in the financial industry, as they focus on immutability and efficiency rather than anonymity and transparency. However, if we look closely at the inherent properties of a private or permissioned blockchain, they resemble a shared database, and critics argue that the term private blockchain is just a confusing name for a shared database.

Estonias digital identity solution is an example of the use of the blockchain as a marketing tactic as the company providing the underlying technology rebranded its offering from “hash-linked time-stamping” to “blockchain technology” just in time to ride the blockchain hype. With last years crypto-craze, there is no shortage of companies claiming to be a “blockchain-company” in order to boost valuations.

With this in mind, there are a couple of simple control questions to help guide one through the decision process whether one should explore blockchain technology or just stick with a good old database.

First of all, if it works, don’t fix it. If you’re satisfied with your database setup today, there should be no rush to replace this. A potential switch involves rethinking everything, recoding most things, and betting on a new technology that will need many years of work to become as mature as whatever database you’re currently using.

Are you depending on a third party to carry out transactions or to create trust between multiple stakeholders? If the use of a trusted third party to establish and maintain trust across stakeholders it may be the time to investigate the use of blockchain technology.

On the other hand, if performance and transaction speed is the most important factor, you should stick with a database… for now.

Do you need to handle highly dynamic data with a clear audit trail, blockchains offer a flexible capacity by enabling many parties to write new entries into a system of record that is also held by many custodians.

To make things somewhat easier, there are numerous flowcharts for then to use a blockchain circulating the internet, and many of these can be found here.

While there are many reasons to steer clear of blockchain technology, there are equally many potential valuable use-cases such as royalty distribution in the music industry, cross-border payments, management of shared ownership such as timeshare, health records and many more. For instance, a decentralized Facebook might have mitigated the current array of scandals related to deliberately spreading misinformation to influence public opinion and the misuse personal data.

For managers looking to explore blockchain, it is easy to both be dazzled by the promises of new technology as well as dismiss the unknown. In this case it is important to stay curious and have a practical approach while still being able to have a vision that spans beyond the daily operations.

10 thoughts on “Do you need a blockchain?

  • May 7, 2018 at 8:28 am
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    I completely agree with you on this. Also good that you unveil the Estonian blockchain wonder – it’s “just” a hash-linked timestamp as you say. I visited GuardTime, the provider of the system, last year and they confirmed this although they were otherwise very secret about their technology. No open source there (can you really trust a blockchain system that is not open source?).

    I think Gideon Greenspan’s rules, although a bit strict, makes sense. Look at his post “Do you really need a blockchain for that?”.

    Reply
    • May 14, 2018 at 8:14 am
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      Even Ripple have abandoned blockchain for its money transfer protocol.

      Reply
  • May 13, 2018 at 11:38 pm
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    2. spørsmål: For at en blockchain løsning skal være sikker, må det finnes et minimum av uavhengige noder som oppdaterer blockchainen. Hvis det bare er en bedrift som eier og som kan legge blocker inn i blockchainen så er den ikke sikker. Hvordan løser bedriftene som sakl rulle ut blockahin løsningene dette? Bygger de sine løsninger på eksisternde blockchain løsninger som Ethereum?

    Reply
  • May 13, 2018 at 11:40 pm
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    Spørsmål 2: Data i en blockchain skal per definisjon ikke kunne endres. Dette blir et problem med GDPR, som sier at en person kan kreve at sine data skal slettes fra en IT løsning.
    Hvordan vil dette påvirke blockchain løsninger?

    Reply

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