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Airline Magazine Syndrome, Blockchain, and You

So your CEO has just gone to a conference, and on the way back flipped through one of the magazines in the seat pocket on the airplane. “Blockchain,” he mumbles as he stumbles down the jetway, bleary-eyed from the four complimentary rum and cokes. “Why don’t we use that?”

As an IT worker, it’s your job to field this question. It’s a good question, and given the amount of media attention blockchain is getting, the questions will come. If you’re in finance or logistics, this has probably already happened. So what do you say?

Questions to Ask

Blockchain – a decentralized, append-only distributed ledger – can be a very useful tool. Like any tool, however, it is more or less valuable depending on how it’s being leveraged. Where there are numerous actors, trust is limited, where you need immutability, and where decentralization would benefit the organization, you can make an easy case for blockchain.

  • Is there an obvious flaw with the way we’re solving the problem now? The old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s true. It’s also true that if you can optimize a process using blockchain technology, it could be something worth exploring. Probe this with the CIO. How does he/she see blockchain improving a process?
  • Does the process we’re looking to decentralize have a bunch of actors with potentially different goals and motivations? In most cases, if you’re the only actor on a blockchain, you control the consensus mechanism, so you’re not solving any trust problems. There are different reasons why you might consider doing this (if you’re MasterCard, for example, it could keep you relevant, and drive down transaction costs).
  • Do we trust other actors on the chain, and do we trust an intermediary like a court or bank to rectify any problems we might have? If you haven’t had any issues relating to trust, or if you are confident in an intermediary’s ability to resolve any disputes you might have relating to the particular service you want to decentralize, you should discuss this with your CEO. What is normal procedure in the event of a dispute? Could we improve the situation?
  • Do we want to improve our relationship with another actor on the chain? How do our other supply chain partners feel about us? Are we a questionable actor on someone else’s chain? Would it be valuable for us to remove the need for our customers to trust us?
  • Does a simple blockchain-powered solution exist? If a plug and play solution exists, it could be a relatively low risk way to leverage new blockchain technology.

Blockchain technology won’t always be the right solution for you. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get away with dodging questions about it. Come armed with answers. Be a star.

Recommendations

  1. Do some research.
    Make sure you have a good conceptual understanding of blockchain in order to prepare for the questions you’re going to receive about it. The list of questions above is a starting point, but shouldn’t be the extent of your interrogation.
  2. Don’t be afraid to push back.
    Good leaders appreciate it when their subject matter experts are honest with them. Leadership sometimes sees IT as the “department of no,” and that’s bad. Make sure you phrase your feedback in a positive way. Think less “no, but…” more “yes, and…”
  3. Vendors hold the key.
    Big software vendors are all looking into blockchain technology. Odds are they have resources that you don’t. Start there before developing your own blockchain solution. It can be a good compromise with a persistent executive.

Bottom Line

Like with any technology, you should make sure you understand the value proposition of blockchain technology before rolling it out. Blockchain isn’t an incremental improvement over some other technology (like a more capacious flash storage drive, for example). It’s new, and it’s going to take a little while to take full advantage of its unique capabilities. When your CEO comes to you with some relevant questions about the role blockchain can play in your organization, some common questions based on blockchain’s strengths will help you determine whether or not requests are warranted.


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