Blockchain: Are You Bothered?

There are so many misconceptions around blockchain and its potential impact. Will the fundamental concept of blockchain really have a significant impact on procurement, finance and supply chain?

Last month’s Procurious London Roundtable was sponsored by Basware

Blockchain is the coolest technology of the moment and the hype surrounding it only appears to be growing year upon year. Whilst the concept was first used for Bitcoin, the digital currency, its potential is far wider, and many industries are actively investigating the possibilities of using blockchain-based solutions.

But despite organisations around the world jumping on the Blockchain bandwagon and advocating for its enormous potential, do the majority of professionals understand precisely what it is, what it can do and the extent to which it will impact our businesses?

At last month’s Procurious roundtable, Paul Clayton, Head of New Service Development, Basware put us through our paces with an overview of blockchain technology and his insights as to why procurement pros need to be cautious not to overestimate it’s bearing on the function.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is simply a digitised, decentralised and cryptographically secured ledger of transactions.

“The biggest misconception” Paul begins, “is that there is only one blockchain. There are actually many blockchains in use today throughout many different industries.”

“Blockchain is actually only a concept, whose origins go back to academic work in the early 90s, rather than a thing. The concept was first publicly used to allow the crypto-currency Bitcoin to be traded virtually, anonymously, and without the need for a centralised bank.”

“Blockchain technology says where something has been transferred to and retains a trace of the transfer. Conceptually a blockchain acts like is a single ledger, a source of the truth if you like. In reality, it is physically distributed where there are actually multiple ledgers, known as nodes, that all work together to come to consensus on where something has been transferred to, which is then shared between them.”

An obvious advantage of this technology, is that it’s very difficult for you to break the integrity of the ledger. “There are multiple copies of the same ledger and so if someone hacks one it becomes immediately obvious that it is different.”

The flaws at the heart of blockchains

Whilst a blockchain itself is safe, an application using it remains hackable – Security researchers and hackers have proved it’s possible to hack someone’s Bitcoin wallet and empty it of crypto-cash. Mt. Gox infamously lost 7 per cent of all Bitcoins in circulation in 2014, which were worth, at the time, approximately $473 million. It also appears to be an uphill battle trying to prosecute someone for taking a Bitcoin

It’s can be too transparent – With public blockchains, once a transaction and its associated data have been placed onto a blockchain, anyone and everyone who has access to it can view everything, whether you like it or not

It’s not the most elegant solution – The very nature of the deliberately distributed ledger with multiple copies (nodes), means that you have multiple nodes undertaking exactly the same piece of work ie working out where something has been transferred to. From a pure computing power point of view, for certain applications, this is a highly inefficient way of doing things.

The blockchain for Bitcoin for example, has already had to be re-designed to increase its scalability as the number of Bitcoins in circulation and the growth in the associated transactions meant that the ledger became too unwieldy and it was taking too long for it to update.

You can still lose things!

Even if you know where something went, you can still then lose it. Who could forget the unfortunate James Howells, who mistakenly threw out a hard drive containing 7,500 Bitcoins, now estimated to be worth $7.5 million


Blockchain for business

There are some who would argue that these problems have been addressed and eliminated for blockchain for business. Paul is not one of them!

“The distributed nature of ledgers means blockchain is good at maintaining the integrity of who owns something but what it cannot do is determine whether the person who put something into a system owned it in the first place.”

This means, when making a transaction via a blockchain, the recipient needs to be able to trust the supposed owner of the thing that is being exchanged. “You are, essentially, reliant on the veracity of the source of what goes in to the blockchain.”

For example:

Does the “owner” actually own the rights to the house they are trying to sell you?

If you’re exchanging metals, does the “owner” have documents to prove they have the rights to the gold?

It might be good at preventing a fraudulent transfer of an asset but blockchain is “next to useless at establishing if a person owned something in the first place”

“As a ledger system it is extremely inefficient, almost clumsy in the way it works. In certain circumstances, where there are a high volume of transactions it uses so much computing power it’s almost not worth it.”

“And it’s for these reasons that, whilst it will have applications in many areas from supply chain through to electronic voting, blockchain won’t change the world!”

Where is the value for procurement?

“Is there value in blockchain tech? Yes. Does the value match the hype right now? Not even close!”

“From a procurement point of view the biggest area of impact right now is most likely to be in supply chain applications. There are obvious applications for the transfer of title and bill of lading. Of particular interest in this space right now are supply chains that can be subject to fraud such as pharmaceuticals and food

Going beyond that the application of so called “smart contracts” to a blockchain can help automate certain business processes. Smart contracts, are pieces of computer code attached to a blockchain that automatically execute an action once a set of agreed criteria have been met. For, example, a smart contract could be used to automatically pay a supplier once the buyer has received their goods without the need for invoice processing and payment.

” In 2017, blockchain is word of the year, it’s absolutely everywhere. But it’s not earth shattering, it’s not the third generation of the Internet its just an interesting concept with some obvious benefits and flaws.”

Last month’s Procurious London Roundtable was sponsored by Basware