What is blockchain and what does it mean for your business?

This new technology could potentially have major impacts in a wide range of industries

Bitcoin is getting a lot of press lately, but it’s the technology behind Bitcoin that has the potential to revolutionize how business is conducted. It’s called blockchain, and there’s a race on to develop applications for it across a wide array of industries.

How does it work? Simply put, blockchain is a continuously updated digital record of who holds what. Information about transactions—the time, date, amount and the participants involved—is encrypted into a “block” that is linked to other blocks to form a chain.

Everyone in a blockchain has access to the same information, providing transparency and continuous reconciliation. Because it exists on many computers, there is no centralized version of the information for a hacker to attack. And the use of encryption technology means it’s no longer necessary to have a trusted third party verify information about you and a transaction you want to make.

No central verification of transactions

There is no one central authority controlling the blockchain and that’s one of the reasons why Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are so fascinating. They aren’t controlled by a central bank or single administrator. Instead, transactions between users are verified and recorded in a blockchain, using encryption technology.

But blockchain technology can be used for many things other than just currency. And that’s why several major corporations are investing in it, including Microsoft, IBM (with more than 400 blockchain projects around the world), Unilever and Toyota.

They are looking to apply blockchains to everything from fighting digital fraud to managing industrial supply chains to tracing the origin of foodstuffs around the world. But blockchains won’t impact just large corporations; your company may be affected in the not-too-distant future.

Some real-world examples of blockchain technology

The financial services industry is beginning to use blockchain to develop new services and save on costs.

For example, the Australian stock exchange recently announced it would begin using blockchain to settle transactions. The technology will be used to record shareholdings and manage the clearing and settlement of equity transactions.

Another example of blockchain in financial services comes from a firm called Abra. It’s a money transfer platform that allows workers abroad to send money home in 54 different currencies. Workers can send money back home quickly and more cheaply by using the platform, compared with a traditional service provider such as Western Union, which charges fees that average 7% of the amount sent, according to the World Bank.

Making food safer and more sustainable

Another blockchain project involves the World Wildlife Fund and three companies that are collaborating to sustainably source tuna in the Pacific Ocean. ConsenSys (a blockchain company), TraSeable (an IT firm) and SeaQuest Fiji (a tuna fishing and processing company) are using a blockchain to track where, when and how tuna are caught and sold.

From fishers to brokers to your local fishmonger or grocery store, each transaction is recorded on a blockchain. This allows consumers to be sure that they are buying good-quality, legally caught, sustainably fished tuna.

Tracking goods and making payments

In supply chain logistics, the combination of blockchain, smart contracts, and the Internet of Things will allow companies to track shipments and make payments when certain conditions are met (i.e., a product is delivered). Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, began testing blockchain a year ago to track its cargo in conjunction with Dutch customs, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the company sending the goods.

Smaller companies could use this technology as well. Imagine a grocery store whose inventories are getting low. Smart containers holding the goods could be programmed to inform a wholesaler that they need to be restocked. The wholesaler would notify a trucking company to pick up the goods and deliver them to the retailer. Each step could be recorded and payments made via a blockchain because all would be verified amongst the parties.

Further refinement is needed

Despite all this potential, we are still in the early days of the blockchain. Three key issues need to be resolved before it goes mainstream. They include energy use, processing speed and interoperability across blockchains.

  • Verifying transactions to add to the blockchain is energy-intensive because of the computer power required to do all the computations, solving equations by trial and error. Technology firms are working on solutions to maintain the security but reduce the energy consumption.
  • Because of all the computations involved, the processing time is slow. But researchers are working on ways to simplify calculations and increase the number of transactions.
  • Currently there are many blockchains—some public, some private—that don’t talk to one another. The next generation of blockchain technology will likely address this issue.

Conclusion

Blockchain has the potential to transform many industries. As a stand-alone technology, it can verify and track transactions. In conjunction with the Internet of Things and smart contracts, it can make transactions more efficient.

How fast and how much the technology will change the economy remains to be seen.

What does it mean for entrepreneurs?

  • If you’re in the business of verifying transactions of any kind, investigate how blockchain could impact your company. You only have to consider the threat to the business of clearing and settling stock trades to see that the disruption to many back-office functions and other services could be substantial.
  • Assuming you belong to some sort of supply chain, your partners may ask you to start digitally tracking your processes. Especially if you’re a supplier to large companies, start thinking about where you fit into your customers’ supply chains and how you might be asked to participate in a blockchain.
  • If you’re a supplier to either consumers or other businesses, could you benefit from tracing your products back to their source? Think of the premium prices that a fishmonger selling guaranteed sustainable tuna might be able to charge.

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