Beyond Bitcoin: The Future of Blockchain Technology

Unlike bitcoins, blockchain development has showed no signs of slowing down and represents a Hard Trend that will continue to grow. The rapidly evolving technology of blockchain holds enormous promise for game-changing disruption across any number of industries and fields.

Bitcoins were introduced in 2009 to great fanfare. Although there had been predecessors, Bitcoins were framed as the first form of cyber currency.

Shortly after Bitcoins were introduced, I labeled them a Soft Trend—one whose future was looking good, but not a future certainty. I also labeled cyber currency a Hard Trend that would continue to grow, predicting that there would be many more cyber currencies.

Since then, I’ve seen no need to change either designation, as there are now more than 100 different cyber currencies. At the same time, as Bitcoins struggled to gain widespread use, blockchain—the technology Bitcoin transactions are handled with—were growing.

Unlike bitcoins, blockchain development has showed no signs of slowing down and represents a Hard Trend that will continue to grow. The rapidly evolving technology of blockchain holds enormous promise for game-changing disruption across any number of industries and fields.

O’Reilly Media presciently noted in early 2015: “The blockchain is the new database—get ready to rewrite everything.”

Blockchain Explained—Security in Numbers

A blockchain is a system of decentralized transaction records. This means a transaction is created without any input from a controlling entity. A blockchain also employs cryptography to keep exchanges secure, incorporating a decentralized database, or “digital ledger,” of transactions that everyone on the network can see. This network is a chain of computers, needing exchange approval before it can be verified and recorded.

The Game-Changing Opportunity in Financial Transactions

Roughly $20 billion in gross domestic product is currently held in blockchain form, according to a study by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council. However, projections show blockchain use will increase significantly in the next decade as banks, insurers and technology firms embrace the technology to boost transaction speed and security, and trim expenses. This is already taking place, for example, with Swiss banking giant UBS and banks such as HSBC, Santander and BBVA, which launched corporate venture funds to make equity investments in financial technology companies.

More Than Just Money

The future of blockchain is exciting. Outside of its use solely in financial transaction applications, it can transform several other industries. Other examples include:

  •      Data Storage—Current storage services using cloud technology are centralized around a single provider. A blockchain lets users store data and information via a decentralized platform, improving security and lessening reliance on any one provider.
  •      Voting—A blockchain voting network is inherently more reliable than paper or electronic ballots, since changing one vote would require changing multiple votes simultaneously. A blockchain voting network has already been used—Denmark’s Liberal Alliance employed a blockchain for internal voting back in 2014.
  •      Military Use—The U.S. Department of Defense and NATO are actively investigating the use of blockchain. Among other applications, they’re interested in messaging platforms capable of transferring information by way of a secure decentralized protocol.
  •      The War on Terrorism—In May 2015, the Isle of Man implemented the first government-run blockchain project, leveraging it to create a registry of digital-currency companies operating on the island. The system also counters money laundering, helping prevent terrorist financing since the flow of money can be traced specifically to the source of the transaction.
  •      “Smart” Contracts—The idea behind a smart contract is that it self-manages the fulfillment of the agreement and is verified programmatically via the blockchain instead of a third party. Two or more parties agree on terms, program those terms into the blockchain, and allow for payments and other transactions once those terms are fulfilled and validated by the blockchain.
  •      Regulation—Because a blockchain cannot be changed without a majority of participants agreeing to do so, the underlying technology might be used in place of a variety of regulations, such as those mandated by Know Your Customer (KYC).
  •      Identity Management—Labeled the first comprehensive blockchain-based identity service, Onename allows users to create tamper-proof digital identities for themselves called Passcards that replace conventional usernames and passwords.
  •      The Music Industry—In October 2015, Ujo Music unveiled a working example of how blockchain-based technology would allow consumers to purchase registered works directly. We can also pre-solve the problem of legalities, where artists publish policies on how their music may be used to avoid legal action against misuse.

More Reasons for Excitement

Blockchain use is largely restricted to private forms of transactions, but when looked at in an anticipatory way of thinking, blockchain could be used for anything that requires proof of identification, the exchange of goods or verification of contract terms.

One executive involved in the development of blockchain summarized its potential in a framework we can all appreciate: “‘Check it on the blockchain’ will be the phrase of the twenty-first century. It will be as commonplace as people saying ‘Google that.’”

When it comes to blockchain, get ready to rewrite everything.

The Risks of Sticking with Legacy Technology

Legacy technology is like that old pair of jeans you wore as a teenager. “They are comfortable” was always your answer to any inquiry.

Legacy technology is like that old pair of jeans you wore as a teenager. “They are comfortable” was always your answer to any inquiry.

Move that anecdote onto a larger stage and you have a fairly accurate picture of why many organizations hold on to legacy technology—tools that are long outdated: comfort.

In a world of exponential change, legacy technology is trouble. Continuing to use outdated technology of all sorts is costly beyond the financial spectrum.

Legacy Technology Defined

A definition of legacy technology describes the term as “an old method, technology, computer system or application program, of, relating to, or being a previous or outdated computer system.”

This particular definition frames legacy technology in a negative light. There’s no getting around the fact that legacy technology is pervasive.  

In more recent news, several organizations have experienced setbacks from legacy technology:

  • Last year, Data Breaches compromised 15.1M patient records with 503 incidents.
  • In late 2016, British bank Tesco shut down online banking in early November after 40,000 accounts were compromised, half by hackers for fraudulent purposes. Andrew Tschonev, technical specialist at security firm Darktrace, stated: “With attackers targeting everyone and anyone, today’s businesses cannot safely assume that it won’t happen to them.”
  • In July 2016, Southwest Airlines canceled 2,300 flights when a router failed, delaying hundreds of thousands of passengers. The same issue grounded 451 Delta Air Lines flights weeks later.
  • In November 2015, Orly Airport in Paris was forced to ground planes for several hours when the airport’s weather data management system crashed. The system was Windows 3.1.

Bad PR? Yes, but Much More Than That

Reputations are important, and high-profile incidents like these don’t create great headlines. But the reasons to move on from legacy technology stretch further:

Data breaches. As Tesco discovered, legacy technology is open to cyber crime. Vendor support is often nonexistent, which limits valuable upgrades. Furthering security risks, advantages of improvements in security measures are not easily accessible for old systems.

Expensive functionality. Revamping outdated technology can be an expensive proposition, but running outdated technology increases operating costs also. Old hardware versions lack modern power-saving technology and the systems’ maintenance is expensive.

Compliance penalties. Depending on your industry, legacy technology may not be in compliance. In the medical industry, outdated software will fail to meet compliance standards, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), resulting in severe financial penalties.

Customer loss. No matter the industry, offering outdated solutions and ideas derived from equally outdated technology will prompt customers to look elsewhere for better answers.

Unreliability. Many organizations hold on to legacy systems in the belief that the systems still work. If that’s not the case, consider what happens when something goes wrong, as seen in the detrimental examples above.

Perception issues. Leaders need to be aware of the message they’re sending to their employees. Consider how a younger employee who’s comfortable with technology might react to coping with the limitations of legacy technology. Aside from lost productivity, they may consider a new employer more willing to invest in current infrastructures.

“No” Can Be More Costly Than “Yes”

Replacing legacy technology is not entirely devoid of downsides, the most obvious being cost. Other deterrents include legacy replacement projects failing or the time and cost involved in system testing and end-user retraining.

But the question remains: Are you and your organization comfortable with the old, or are you identifying the Hard Trends that are shaping the future and embracing the new? Are you anticipating the need to invest and upgrade before tragedy occurs? There’s not one organization in the examples provided that doesn’t wish to go back and pre-solve the problems of outdated systems.

Before making any decisions, assess both Hard Trends and Soft Trends that affect your organization and industry. Consider the positive and negative impacts that replacing legacy systems may carry both internally and externally. Be certain that every element for the new system serves a well-defined business goal, now and in the future.

As I emphasize in my Anticipatory Organization Learning System, saying yes can be expensive, but saying no could be catastrophic.