Blockchain and its most famous application, Bitcoin, is rarely out of the news. A quick Google search will currently return some 133 million results, many talking about the potential (and volatility) of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.
But that misses the point. Bitcoin is to blockchain what websites are to the internet. That is to say, it’s just one potential application of blockchain technology and there’s a great many other uses for it that will transform the way we work.
Blockchain can be applied to a long list of business cases, from tracking a supply chain to accounting. Indeed, Gartner predicts that by 2030, 30% of commercial activities will supported by blockchain.
As such the time is ripe to begin to explore these applications as they begin to emerge from Bitcoin’s shadow.
What is the blockchain?
First of all, let’s define what the blockchain actually is. A blockchain is a type of digital database, an electronic ledger that keeps a record of different data operations. These records are kept in ‘blocks’ and linked together - hence the name blockchain.
Data stored in a blockchain is decentralised, meaning there’s no central point of vulnerability where it could be attacked. Each block is time-stamped and all the data is confirmed anonymously in a record of events that’s spread across many different parties. It’s then permanently saved.
This means that once data is part of the blockchain, it cannot be meddled with or removed from the records. This gives rise to some of blockchain’s many uses in the workplace.
Blockchain could be as transformative to record-keeping as accounting. It’s an electronic ledger that has no ownership, cannot be altered, is shared across a network and continuously verified. So blockchain will do away with the need for middlemen to enforce compliance. Lawyers, notaries, solicitors and accountants everywhere could be under threat from this.
Estonia has been experimenting with blockchain since 2007 for its national digital identity scheme. Blockchain has helped the country create secure, uneditable records of identity with multiple strands of information on citizens pulled together in a single chain.
Contracts getting smarter
Ethereum (a blockchain platform) has been gaining attention recently as a way to make agreements more secure and trustworthy. Ethereum smart contracts can have certain behaviours connected to them. Payment could be reliant on a worker hitting a certain target, for example.
AXA uses such smart contracts for flight insurance. Contracts are connected to global air traffic databases and policyholders are automatically reimbursed if a flight is delayed. Promising a more secure and transparent form of insurance.
Blockchain technology offers a way to bring streams of information together in a single, tamperproof place. In the future, instead of handing over a CV job hunters could provide employers with a digital dossier about their experience, skills and interests. All verified and time-stamped.
This will help employers hire the best candidates for a role, whilst ruling out fraud and providing more in-depth information on soft skills and personality.
Because everything on a blockchain is open to others on the same network, it will cause more transparency over salaries. It could also help align pay more accurately with performance. That could spell the end for the gender pay gap and other discrimination.
There’s also huge perks for gig workers. Payment can be linked to smart contracts, meaning a client cannot back out of paying a freelancer unless unhappy with the work. Freelancers working overseas, such as digital nomads, often bear the brunt of cross-currency payments. But with blockchain services like Bitwage, transfer fees are a thing of the past.
The Bounties Network is a freelance platform that uses Ethereum smart contracts to protect freelancers and their clients. It’s highly reputation based, with clients reassured that their freelancer is ‘the real deal’ through experience details that cannot be modified. Likewise, freelancers can rest easy knowing that they will receive payment for their work once complete.
Decentralisation and collective leadership
One significant change to our workplaces might occur because of decentralisation. Because everyone in a blockchain can see and verify information, there might not need to be a C-suite or board in the future. Decisions might be made collectively by an organisation’s employees. Company policies and decisions on pay, hiring and firing might also be done as a collective.
A more transparent supply chain
The origins of purchases have become more important recently. Clothing retailer Zara found itself in the press after unpaid workers slipped cries for help into its clothes. Meanwhile Nestle is being sued after allegedly using children and slaves in its cocoa supply chain.
For global companies, it can be difficult to track every aspect of a supply chain that spans across the world. But blockchain can provide a way to achieve this - as illustrated by Everledger, a digital diamond ledger that prevents blood diamonds entering the industry supply. Blockchain can track single items and link them back to the farmers and factories that produced them.
It might also provide fairer compensation for farmers and factory workers in the long run. By seeing their place in the chain, workers could demand a more equal share of the final product price.
Moving from blockchain hype to reality
Blockchain technology is still in its infancy. As it becomes more mainstream, organisations may move away from using the buzzwordy term ‘blockchain’ and instead focus on its functions. The Australian Securities Exchange, for example, uses the phrase “distributed ledger technology” in a press release announcing its use of blockchain.
Eventually, blockchain will be as common in the workplace as the internet. It will provide the foundation for a lot of business applications, but we might not even know that it’s there. Instead, it’ll work behind the scenes, making our work day a lot more transparent, secure and fair.