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Blockchain for the Masses by IBM – A Missed Opportunity?

by Andrew White  |  August 24, 2017  |  2 Comments

It so happened that I was eating my cereal when Brigid McDermott, VP of IBM’s blockchain solutions, came on the air at CNBC.  I didn’t feel the interview went well.  I thought Brigid was fine but her prep and prose clearly were not simple enough for the average Jo.  If we wanted to explain what blockchain was to a non-technician, I am not sure the following helped.

When asked to explain what this new technology is, here was Brigid’s explanation – “Blockchain is a trusted system of record. That’s all it is.  It’s that simple.  It means that when  you want to share information with people who you know, but maybe you don’t totally trust, you can put them on [the block chain] and it can’t be changed.  It’s like doing a crossword puzzle in pen.”

I dig the “crossword puzzle in pen” but little else told me much at all.

She did get to a key point: “It [blockchain] records it [information, or transactions] in such a way that everyone trusts the information”.

When asked to explain why blockchain is trusted and secure, here was Brigid’s explanation – It is down “to the way information is put on the chain and is stored with a hash.”

That lost me right there and I do have an idea for how it works.  But only a technician would understand.  Again, the simple idea that everyone on the network has a copy of all the transactions was not mentioned.

The actual case study shared was interesting, not least because it implied a whole lot more than blockchain.  The case study explained looked at the food industry and particularly tractability to help solve safety issues.  The example suggested that if every member of  the food industry was using blockchain, then when there is an outbreak of something bad, they someone (no idea who, since blockchain is s distributed system) would “triangulate” across all the information to find out which part of the food supply chain was the cause.  Just because a whole lot of data is currently stored in silos does not mean those silos are mitigated with a blockchain model.  Are we to assume that all the data in the silos is not stuffed into a blockchain?  That’s a massive availability issue.  OK, so maybe just metadata about the data in the silos?  I have no idea.  IBM never explained reality here.

Blockchain won’t do this alone – a lot of analysis on one of the blocks might find the problem – if everyone in the industry were part of the network.

She then went on to call out a big change – blockchain vis a vis crypto-currencies tend to be anonymous models where all parties on the chain have equal access to all data – that is the premise of the design. IBM’s enterprise blockchain approach clearly has permissions.  Someone has to set those – and that implies a single (dare I say centralized?) agent to set those levels of permission for access to that particular blockchain.  But Andrew Ross Sorkin spotted a problem: OK so it looks like we can have a private blockchains for specific enterprises and their chosen partners which implies multiple 1:M blockchians each grocery manufacturer would have to access.  But in the case of food safety, how is visibility then achieved across all the individual private blockchains?  There was no answer other than the implied you need multiple blockchains, each one for a different use.

By the way, I am not sure I could have done better than Brigid, but I think we all need to work on how we communicate new, innovative technology to the public.  I feel blockchain is not being understood yet.  Maybe some simple (non-technical, marketing centric) messages may help:

  • You can have private networks and public networks – and a network is a blockchain
  • All members of a given network get copies of all transactions due to its distributed or Napster-like replication capability built into it
  • It is secure in that once one is posted it is almost impossible to change since the number of copies of that transaction is too great – everyone get’s a copy – so it is more secure the larger the network
  • Blockchain can change a number of things all firms do every day: share data, move data, copy data, collect data, and it can drive improvements (as a result) in collaboration, intelligence, and business process efficiency.

What else might we say, or offer as an alternative?

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Category: blockchain  ibm-vendors  

Andrew White
Research VP
8 years at Gartner
22 years IT industry

Andrew White is a Distinguished Analyst and VP. His roles include Chief of Research and Content Lead for Data and Analytics. His main research focus is data and analytics strategy, platforms, and governance. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Blockchain for the Masses by IBM – A Missed Opportunity?

  1. Patrice says:

    The reason why most explanations of the blockchain concept and use cases fall flat is that they aim at “false targets”. For instance, the food traceability issue will never be solved by some magical technology but ONLY when participants will agree to put the right processes in place.

    Right now, the only blockchain implementation that has real value for its user is cryptocurrency (e.g. bitcoin) and this is the only case where the explanations make sense.

  2. john keogh says:

    Good if not critical summary – the practice leader should, but is not always the best person to explain and simplify the understanding. I’m sure IBM has thousands more effective so let’s give them a break on this one. That said, most of what is being piloted today in food supply chains can be, and is being done with a combination of industry standards and technologies. I helped develop the GS1 and ISO standards for product recall for example starting almost 10 years ago and they were ratified in 2012 timeframe but are not being used effectively. Similarly, GS1 ( has an industry developed traceability standard and traceability assessment checklist that is not implemented by the very people / companies who created them. Furthermore, the food industry has ‘dirty-data’ and putting inaccurate data on the blockchain is not a good solution, sure it will be ‘trusted’ but is it accurate?. We need to have a stronger focus on overall data governance and data quality across master data, transactional data and event data. THEN, each company needs to determine which attributes from these can be transparent on the blockchain. This is key, not all data should be transparent and may need to be blocked from a public/transparency blockchain. Net-net, adult supervision still required. In good faith, John.

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