Category Archives: Digital Transformation

Blockchain For Dummies

Blockchain for Dummies

There has been quite a lot of chatter on the net in the last 12 to 18 months about blockchain. I’ll attempt to demystify some of the concepts in this blog as well as outline some potential applications. Blockchain for dummies does what it says on the tin and presents an introductory, lightweight guide, hopefully whetting your appetite of an often misunderstood technology.

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What is Blockchain?
Wikipedia’s definition of a blockchain is given as… “A blockchain, originally, block chain is a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of data records secured from tampering and revision. It consists of data structure blocks—which hold exclusively data in initial blockchain implementations and both data and programs in some more recent implementations—with each block holding batches of individual transactions and the results of any blockchain executables. Each block contains a timestamp and a link to a previous block.” [1]

So, what does this mean in ‘dummies’ terms? Basically, (and this is my definition in as much of a nutshell as I can make it); a blockchain is a mechanism that allows businesses that are separated across a network, to instantaneously complete and verify transactions without having to refer to a central overseeing authority. It really doesn’t sound like a big deal, but as more and more applications built on blockchain technology emerge, it appears to be set to revolutionise the internet (again).

Delving into the weeds a little more, so that we can get a grasp of the underlying technology,  we can say that; blockchain is a data structure which enables a digital record of commercial accounts (ledger), to be created and shared across a number of computers (usually located some distance apart), and connected via a network. In semi-tech parlance this is known as distributed computing. So, basically, we are saying that a ledger is created and shared across a network simultaneously to a number of partners. This is more or less the basic concept. Remember this is a ‘Blockchain for Dummies’ guide, and whilst there are various flavours of blockchain implementations, they won’t be covered here. One question remains then, in this brief introduction. If it is such a simple concept, and clearly devoid of rocket science, what exactly is all the noise about?

The key word of course is ‘distributed’, or to put it another way, decentralised. Looking at the vast majority of technology-enabled businesses these days, the status quo suggests that many platforms rely on databases that are centralised with a single point of failure. Yes, of course we have many measures in place to prevent the loss or theft of data, but each database regardless of whether it is an original, a copy or backup or a cloud-based replica is in itself a centralised container which is potentially vulnerable to failure, tampering, theft etc.

The big advantage that blockchain technology brings to the table is a means to ensure that we have freedom from 3rd parties and complete control over who has access to our data. We see that the effect of decentralisation is a powerful one in that, the reduction in the use of intermediaries in record keeping has increased security and control. In order to continue the blockchain each block must be signed and verified by multiple verification agents who must also then agree upon the transaction time stamp, which is indelible. The possibility of forgery has gargantuan odds stacked against it since the sheer amount of data being processed simultaneously creates an obstacle that is nigh on impossible to overcome.

Who Invented it?
From what I can tell, the true identity of the inventor(s) of blockchain has not been credited with the idea and its most famous (to date) product, the bitcoin. Some say this is because of the far reaching consequences that blockchain could deliver and hence endanger the life of the inventor(s). It is generally recognised that a person or group of people known as Satoshi Nakamoto were the fist to publish a paper describing bitcoin. [2] Whatever the case, most media articles seem to agree that it is a substantial opportunity to change the way we do business across the internet.

How is it used Today?
Almost everyday now, we see newly emerging ideas and applications of the blockchain model. At the time of writing a very recent article in the media from a government source states – “blockchain technology is going to become more important if the UK is to be fully automated in the future, including delivery fulfillment and increased proliferation of the internet of things”. [3]

It’s difficult to see just how far reaching blockchain will be, but for sure, it will at least initially be inextricably tied-up with a number of financial, contractual and payments related sectors, including the obvious one, currency (bitcoin and others). Blockchain can be used to ensure that data is verifiable. Take a look at ‘Proof of Existence‘ to see how this simple application works for example.

Onename is a web app built on blockchain that allows a unique and verifiable identity to be registered for purposes such as digitally signing documents, safely and securely signing into websites and apps etc. Here is mine. Others such as real estate are relatively new to blockchain, but will soon leverage some of its unique application selling points such as smart contracts.

The financial sector is the one making the most noise since it may be set to reap the initial rewards. The Financial Times recently reported – “A group of seven banks including Santander, CIBC and UniCredit is claiming a breakthrough, ranking among the first financial institutions in the world to move real money across borders using blockchain-based technology.” [4] Forbes are posing the question “Will Blockchain Become The Internet Of Finance?” [5]  and have suggested that as much as $1 billion has already been invested in the technology since its inception.

How will it be used Tomorrow?
Looking to the future, a number of other areas have been identified as possible applications. Indeed startups have already begun to exploit opportunities in car rental, home internet ready appliances, reduction in cyber risk, social welfare, stock market prediction, salary administration,  and others. The CEO and founder of Everledger, was quoted in ‘Wired’ as saying “We can apply this technology to solve very big problems: ivory poaching, blood diamonds, all these big ’blood problems’ that are helping cartels, terrorists and criminals”. [6] This is amazing if there really are real-world applications that not just disrupt industries, but change lives at the granular level.

What’s clear is that many of the applications are under-developed. Some are just ideas, others have attracted millions in start-up funding. The next few years will really see the technology develop and experiment. Blockchain is a game changer and it’s here to stay. Because of its very nature, ‘certainty-as-a-service’, then it has to be a power for the good. How it will affect me personally? I am not yet sure, but if it provides guarantees, increases transparency and evolves security along the way, it’s definitely worth investigating further.

Darwinism & Digital Transformation – Adapt or Die

Darwinism and the Digital Transformation Age

The Theory
The so-called ‘theory’ of evolution as we all know is not a theory at all, but rather a scientific explanation of our entire existence which is supported by a wealth of evidence solidly rooted in experimental rigour provided by a wide variety of agencies, including paleontology, geology, genetics and developmental biology.

We now unambiguously understand that; “natural selection is the gradual process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of the effect of inherited traits on the differential reproductive success of organisms interacting with their environment. It is a key mechanism of evolution.” [1]

Recently, I was thinking about the whole natural selection thing and how this manifests itself in a multitude of adaptations, evolved over eons. Given time and the right conditions, almost any feature could become advantageous and ultimately prevalent in an ecosystem or society. The thing with natural selection is that it happens imperceptibly slowly. In evolutionary terms, time is not just of the essence, it is the essence or medium through which change travels, rarely in a direct or pre-determined fashion and not always for the good. It just is.

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Arguably, at the heart of it all is the fact that all organisms exhibit some sort of variation, possibly created through a random mutation or maybe through an adaptation to change. This individual trait could then be subject to environmental conditions which in turn could enhance or diminish the advantage leading to an increase or decrease in the natural populace depending on their ability to exploit that advantage. It’s interesting to note that mutations can even be deliberately induced in order to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

You may have observed that some important corollaries of the previous paragraph could be;
1. There is chance of a random mutation,
2. Mutations can be forced,
3. Mutations can occur as a result of interaction with the environment.

I have deliberately reiterated this point to help develop the next piece of narrative, i.e. how can we link a well understood area of scientific study (Darwinism) with a business’s desire and ability to digitally transform.

OK, let’s try this on for size.

1. Take the example where an individual, say some bright spark takes up a position of responsibility within an equally bright spark-type company. A chance encounter one might speculate. I am stating that this is analogous to a chance mutation in nature, at least from the point of view of the business.

2. Take another example where the company is well aware of its current operating environment and has a desire to modify its behaviour to its advantage. This, second analogy is aligned with the forced mutation concept. For whatever reason some internal driving force is pushing for change and ultimately a better position in the food chain, or business sector.

3. The last examples is where change is forced upon an entity by external, non-controllable factors. In nature this could be climate change, or an unnaturally high increase in predation etc. Whatever the cause, the only solution is to adapt, improvise and overcome; or face disaster.

Sound familiar? Well maybe. It guess you could also say that sounds a little far-fetched, but I’m still pretty certain I can build this out into something viable. How so? Well, there are steps involved in digital transformation, just as there are steps to evolve. Equally, there are typically a set of actors and processes involved in digital transformation, all of which are pretty obvious, when you think about it.

The Team
1. The visionaries (actors), i.e. the ones with the idea behind the change and often the instigators of change. We can see the visionary as coming from within the organisation, or someone new joining the organisation to effect change. The response is the same in that the organisation is on the receiving end of a forced mutation.

2. The ‘not so visionaries’ (reactors), i.e. the ones who react (usually too late) to some change forced upon them by external factors, such as market, employment or economic forces. From a digital transformation point-of-view these people are generally ineffective at best and can often be obstructers to change.

3. The changers, i.e. the ones who will implement the change, the adapters, the improvisers and the people who overcome difficulty in the face of the forced transformation, regardless of whether it has been decreed by a visionary or forced by circumstance. This is the change team and we will hear more about them later, but essentially they are the people involved with change usually adopt some method, i.e. a process by which change will come about to the ultimate benefit of the organisation. In Darwinian terms this is something akin to natural selection.

The Process
Generally in digital transformation there is the  benefit of being able to predetermine a roadmap with ideas, processes, tools and data. This helps to guide and smooth the change management process or natural selection in Darwinian terms. Fortunately, such changes are not completely left to the laws of nature, but are subject to a degree of intelligence and planning. It could be argued of course that natural selection is also guided by intelligent forces, but that’s another story. Hopefully the analogy is somewhat clear by now.

Change comes in many forms and is usually a force for the better although it is rarely welcomed. Perhaps it is time for you to think about where you are on the road to digital transformation and how this has come about. Are you truly ready for the digital age and have you got the vision and process to see it through?