Part 17 in the Dynamic Planning Series
In these times of almost continuous technological change, there is a natural tendency to be suspect of whatever is being heralded as the “flavor of the month” or the “next best bet.” In early 2017, I was graciously given the opportunity to speak on what I believed to be the technologies that were transforming finance and specifically, the FP&A function. The talk I ended up giving covered five areas:
- Advanced analytics and forecasting
- Robotic process automation
- Cloud and Software-as-a-Service
- Artificial intelligence
While all these topics deserve further investigation, for this article, I want to focus on blockchain. Part of the reason for diving deeper into blockchain is the lack of understanding of what it actually is and the great amount of time people in the finance function are currently spending talking about it. This has greatly changed in the past nine months.
Last March, while hosting an FP&A Roundtable in Boston, I ask a group of 25 senior FP&A professionals how familiar they were with the concept of blockchain. Out of this august group, there was only one participant who felt truly comfortable with the concept. I still get asked on a regular basis, all over the world, “Blockchain. What is it?”
Blockchain: What is it?
By allowing digital information to be distributed but not copied, blockchain technology has created the spine of a new type of Internet. Picture a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Now imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this spreadsheet, and you have a basic understanding of blockchain.
Information held on a blockchain exists as a shared and continually reconciled database. This is a way of using the network that has obvious benefits. The blockchain database isn’t stored in any single location, meaning the records it keeps are truly transparent and easily verifiable. No centralized version of this information exists for someone to corrupt. Hosted by many computers simultaneously, its data is accessible to any authorized user.
Blockchain technology is like the Internet in that it has a built-in robustness. By storing blocks of information that are identical across its network, the blockchain 1) cannot be controlled by any single entity and 2) has no single point of failure. The Internet itself has proven to be durable for almost 30 years. It’s a track record that bodes well for blockchain technology as it continues to be developed.
A self-auditing ecosystem
The blockchain network lives in a state of consensus, one that automatically checks in with itself on a regular basis. A kind of self-auditing ecosystem of a digital value, the network reconciles every transaction that happens at regular intervals. Each group of these transactions is referred to as a “block.” Two important properties result from this:
Transparency. Data is embedded within the network as a whole, and by definition, is available to all authorized users.
Incorruptibility. Altering any unit of information on the blockchain would mean using a huge amount of computing power to override the entire network. In theory, it is possible; however, in practice, it’s unlikely to happen.
A decentralized technology
By design, the blockchain is a decentralized technology, so anything that happens on it is a function of the network as a whole. Some important implications stem from this. By creating a new way to verify transactions, aspects of traditional commerce may become unnecessary.
Today’s Internet has security problems that are familiar to everyone. However, by storing data across its network, the blockchain eliminates the risks that come with data held centrally. There are no centralized points of vulnerability that can be exploited. In addition, while we all currently rely on the “username/password” system to protect our identity and assets online, blockchain security methods use encryption technology.
I hope this little tutorial helps describe what blockchain is. In my next article, I’ll discuss the value of blockchain to the FP&A profession.
For more on this topic, read the two-part “Blockchain and the CFO” series and “When Blockchain Fulfills CFOs’ Paperless Vision.”
2018 will be a busy year with FP&A Roundtables in St. Louis, Charlotte, Atlanta, San Diego, Las Vegas, London, Boston, Minneapolis, DFW, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Jeddah, and many other locations around the world to support the global FP&A community.