Category Archives: Technology and its malcontents

Cryptocurrencies are problems, not features

CBA announced an Ethereum-based bond market solution1)James Eyers (24 Jan 2017), Commonwealth Bank puts government bonds on a blockchain, Australia Financial Review.) It’s the usual sort of thing: it’s thought that blockchain and smart contracts will make everything so much easier and cheaper by improving transparency and making the exchange of goods (bond) and value (currency) atomic.

What caught my eye though was the following:

CBA created a digital currency to facilitate the payment for the bond through its blockchain, and Ms Gilder called on the RBA to consider issuing a digital version of the Australian dollar, which she said would provide the market with more confidence.

“For the blockchain to recognise its full potential as an asset register and a payments mechanism, you need a blockchain-friendly form of currency,” she said. “In the future, we would hope the RBA will look at issuing a centrally issued, blockchain-friendly digital currency, which would help because then the currency would be exactly the same as a fiat currency dollar in your account today just in blockchain form.”

James Eyers (24 Jan 2017), Commonwealth Bank puts government bonds on a blockchain, Australian Financial Review

As is all to often with this sort of thing, the proponents of the blockchain solution don’t understand how money works and consequentially don’t realise that statements like “a centrally issued, blockchain-friendly digital currency, which would help because then the currency would be exactly the same as a fiat currency dollar in your account today just in blockchain form” are just wrong.

To provide the atomic operation the article talks about (atomic asset and currency exchange), both asset and currency need to be blockchain native: blockchain needs to the the ‘database of record’ for both. Further, this means that the currency must to be issued on the same blockchain as the asset.

The most obvious solution is a private currency secured against some AUD held by an issuer / market maker. If we want our currency to be exactly the same as AUD then it must be backed by AUD – i.e. a unit of private currency represents a claim on a unit of AUD – otherwise we’re forced to deal with change rates.

The problem is that no-one will want to obtain the AUD required to issue enough private currency to support transactions in the market, so the solution isn’t economically viable. Imagine deploying a market-based solution that requires the market manager to hold the same amount of working capital as the total market valuation? That’s what they’re talking about.

The proposed “centrally issued, blockchain-friendly digital currency” doesn’t solve the problem as the currency wouldn’t live on the same blockchain. All payments would be off-chain via a gateway / oracle and therefore that security-value exchange would not be atomic, with enforcement all of value exchanges off-chain in the gateways / oracles. The nature of the currency doesn’t matter (“blockchain-friendly” is meaningless): for the operation to be atomic the currency and asset must be issued on the same blockchain.

We could support atomic transactions via Ethereum by issuing a currency on-chain (a “cryptocurrency”, as with Bitcoin) and then have an exchange rate between the AUD and on-chain currency. I doubt the bankers would find the currency risk acceptable though. Plus each market participant would need to maintain an account with enough on-chain currency to support their operations, so all we’ve really done is take the “working capital is total market value” requirement and spread it around the market participants, with an additional currency risk. I can’t see the market having a lot of confidence in that solution.

Consequently the blockchain doesn’t buy us much more than a bit of transparency, and there are cheaper and more efficient ways of supporting that without Ethererum. If we dump Ethererum and the cryptocurrency, and build a conventional distributed solution (R3 is default mode without a blockchain – smart contracts optional – should do), then the solution should be quite practical.

References   [ + ]

1. James Eyers (24 Jan 2017), Commonwealth Bank puts government bonds on a blockchain, Australia Financial Review.

You can’t democratise trust

I have a new post on the Deloitte Digital blog.

There’s been a lot of talk about using technology to democratise trust, and much of it shows a deep misunderstanding of just what trust is. It’s implicitly assumed that trust is a fungible asset, something that can be quantified, captured and passed around via technology. This isn’t true though.

As I point out in the post:

Trust is different to technology. We can’t democratise trust. Trust is a subjective measure of risk. It’s something we construct internally when we observe a consistent pattern of behaviour. We can’t create new kinds of trust. Trust is not a fungible factor that we can manipulate and transfer.

Misunderstanding trust means that technical solutions are proposed rather than tackling the real problem. As I conclude in the post:

If we want to rebuild trust then we need to solve the hard social problems, and create the stable, consistent and transparent institutions (be they distributed or centralised) that all of us can trust.

Technology can enable us to create more transparent institutions, but if these institutions fail to behave in a trustworthy manner then few will trust them. This is why the recent Ethereum hard fork is interesting. Some people wanted an immutable ledger, and they’re now all on ETC as they no longer trust ETH. Others trust the Ethereum Foundation to “do the right thing by them” and they’re now on ETH, and don’t trust ETC.

Why is blockchain so wasteful?

I have a new post up on the Deloitte blog, coauthored with Robert Hillard.

As we point out in the post:

Bitcoin Miners are being paid somewhere between US $7-$9 to process each Bitcoin transaction.

To do this they’re consuming roughly 157% of a US household’s daily electricity usage per transaction. Those numbers don’t suggest a sustainable future for Bitcoin. They suggest an environmental disaster. And this is by design. So why is Bitcoin so wasteful?

The root of the problem is that in a permissionless and anonymous environment — where anyone can mine — you need to pay the miners, otherwise few will mine. We also know that miners will invest up to the margin (which looks to be around 20% for Bitcoin) to obtain this reward.

You can structure the mining algorithm to favour CAPEX or OPEX, though favouring OPEX is preferred, as it reduces the tendency to centralise. You can also play with where the resources are consumed, either direct in the mining process as with Proof of Work, or more indirectly via Proof of Stake. However, you cannot escape the fact that ultimately Bitcoin works because it consumes real world resources.

This leaves you trapped between two conflicting goals:

  • make the mining pool as large as possible to increase the security of the ledger
  • make the mining pool as small as possible to make the ledger more efficient

The only lever you have to pull is the size of the reward: either via seigniorage, or transaction fees.

Again, as we conclude in the post:

Bitcoin is wasteful as it must be wasteful to work. It isn’t actually waste, it’s really just the cost of securing Bitcoin’s ledger. It is, however, a rather high cost when compared to a more conventional, centralised solution.

Image: Mirko Tobias Schäfer

Can blockchain save the music industry?

I have a new post up at the Deloitte Digital blog: Can blockchain save the music industry?

One of the trends we’re seeing across industry is for the market to split in two – low cost, and high value – with the mid-market dying. The mass market, where everyone bought the same thing, is dying, and we’re transitioning to a market where individuals make their own trade-offs between high and low cost.

This makes me wonder if the attempts to modernised the old mass market music model will work. Mycelia and Mediachain are distribution strategies in a world where the mass market is dying.

The future for the music industry might lie elsewhere.

Image: Anefo Nationaal Archief.

Blockchain performance might always suck, but that’s not a problem

I’ve been watching the Bitcoin scaling debate with some amusement, given that my technical background is in distributed AI and operational simulation (with some VR for good measure). Repeatedly explaining blockchain’s limitations to colleagues has worn thin so I’ve posted a survey of the various scaling approaches on the Deloitte blog,1)Peter Evans-Greenwood (5 May 2016), Blockchain performance might always suck, but that’s not a problem, Deloitte Australia blog. Available at <http://blog.deloitte.com.au/greendot/2016/05/05/blockchain-performance-sucks-not-problem/> pointing out why they won’t deliver – either separately or together – the 10,000 time improvement everyone is wishing for, and why this is not a problem. This post is the short version, one not intended for the general audience of the Deloitte blog has.

Continue reading Blockchain performance might always suck, but that’s not a problem

References   [ + ]

1. Peter Evans-Greenwood (5 May 2016), Blockchain performance might always suck, but that’s not a problem, Deloitte Australia blog. Available at <http://blog.deloitte.com.au/greendot/2016/05/05/blockchain-performance-sucks-not-problem/>

Bitcoin’s not broken

Cryptocurrency_Mining_Farm

A lot of high profile Bitcoin people are getting their knickers in a knot as they’re starting to realise that they don’t have any real control over Bitcoin and how it evolves.

As Wired points out,1)Cade Metz (2016/02/11), The Schism Over Bitcoin is How Bitcoin is Supposed to Work, TechCrunch. the current schism is more akin to a vote than anything else, and it is working as designed.

Bitcoin’s ledger is protected by an indirect consensus process. Rather than voting on which ledger is correct, with Bitcoin we prefer the ledger (the version of the truth) that has contains the most “embedded work”, as this should be the ledger with the support of the largest proportion of the mining community.

Bitcoin’s definition – its consensus process (protocol in geek, the whole transaction definition, proof-of-work thing) – is protected via a similar mechanism. Miners are free to adopt any version of the consensus process they chose; big blocks, small blocks, etc. We should also remember that there is no restriction on who can offer up a version; they don’t need to be from the “core team” or other blessed group of individuals.

Consequently Bitcoin governance – just like the state of the ledger – is based on the consensus of the miners. This is quite different from the governance models we’re used to in industry or government. It’s also a long way from the traditional open source world.

What we’re seeing is a bunch of high profile individuals getting in knots as they realise that they don’t have any real control over Bitcoin, which is working as designed.

Image source: Marco Krohn.

References   [ + ]

1. Cade Metz (2016/02/11), The Schism Over Bitcoin is How Bitcoin is Supposed to Work, TechCrunch.

The problem with platforms in the sharing economy

Platform_compressed-750x300

I have a new post up on the Deloitte Strategy blog.It’s the result of a chat I was having the other day with an economist colleague who opined that “platforms are an essential part of the sharing economy”.

As I point out in the post:

These platforms might be sufficient to kick-start the sharing economy, but they’re not necessary for its long term survival. There are alternative approaches to creating sharing economy solutions that do not rely on a centralised platform.

Platforms solve what we might call the discovery problem. When we’re creating a market it needs a mechanism for buyers and sellers to discover each other.

Rendezvous – where buyers and sellers meet at a common location – is probably the most common solution to discover. It’s also the one that firms prefer as it’s the easiest to monetise.

As I point out later in the post:

The recent emergence of blockchain – a distributed ledger solution – from the shadow of Bitcoin might be a sign that something has changed in the environment, something that is tipping the advantage away from centralised solutions and toward distributed ones.

This could be a big deal, as it blows a rather large hole in the business models of the sharing economy firms.

Check out the post and see the whole story.

Platforms are the new fool’s gold

Fools-Gold-750x300

I have a new post up on the Deloitte Strategy blog, which I wrote with Richard Millar.

Platforms are all the rage. In the modern digital economy many organisations are looking to create platforms, rather than simply building a traditional value-chain driven company (otherwise known as a ‘pipe’).

In this context, a platform is a business model designed to facilitate exchanges between interdependent groups; as opposed to a pipe, which is centred on the sourcing, production and distribution process. The successful companies of the past focused on controlling distribution (something which is increasingly difficulty in our highly-interconnected digital world), while it’s thought that successful companies in the future will focus on controlling access to customers (which they can do by creating a platform that attracts the best customers).

Platforms are where the smart money is going (particularly if your platform is seen as scalable). There’s even a Platform Strategy Summit where you can learn the tricks that will make your platform successful.

This recent obsession with platforms raises some concerns though, as it seems to confuse cause and effect.

You can find the entire text over at the Strategy blog.

Has Apple made NFC irrelevant?

In The future of exchanging value{{1}} I, along with Peter Williams and Ian Harper at Deloitte, pointed out that a successful retail payments strategy should be founded on empowering consumers and merchants to transact when and where they want to. Investing in technologies such as near-field communication (NFC) networks might allow you to shave a couple of seconds off the transaction time once customer was at the till, but it ignores the fact that consumers are increasingly transacting away from the till as mobile phones and ubiquitous connectivity allow them to transact when and where they want to.

[[1]]Peter Evans-Greenwood, Ian Harper, Peter Williams (2012), The future of exchanging value, Deloitte[[1]]

We are seeing a shift from technology acquisition to technology use. Rather than building a payment strategy around the acquisition of a new technology (such as NFC), a successful strategy needs to be based on streamlining the buying journey. While NFC might enable the consumer to save a few seconds at the till, it does not address the far larger time they spent waiting in the queue beforehand. A more valuable solution might avoid the need to queue entirely. This is a design-led approach, focused on the overall problem the customer is solving and the context in which they are solving. Technologies are pulled into the payment strategy as needed, rather than building the strategy around the acquisition of an asset or capability.

Amazon used this approach with the development of the company’s mobile application, one that allows you snap an image of a barcode to purchase a product. Bricks-and-morter retailers see this as showrooming and unsportsmanlike. Many consumers, however, love the idea.

As I pointed out in The destruction of traditional retail{{2}}:

[[2]]The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG[[2]]

If you’re standing in an aisle casually browsing products then Amazon’s till is closer to you than the one at the front of the store[4]. You also don’t need to worry about carrying your purchase home.

The challenge for retailers (from The future of exchanging value) is to:

… manage a portfolio of technologies, from existing payment infrastructure through NFC to emerging tools, combining them to enable customers to transact when and how they need to.

The way for bricks-and-morter retailers to fight showrooming is use a range of low-cost consumer technologies to make it more convenient to transact with them than an internet retailer.

Apple showed how this might be done during the What’s New in Core Location presentation at the company’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference.

Imagine you walk into Jay’s Donut Shop. iBeacons from Core Location are accurate enough for the retailer to be sure that you have walked in, while other location technologies (such as GPS or those based on Wi-Fi) could, at best, provide a list of guesses. You don’t even need to check in. You could order you donuts before you entered the shop. When you reach the counter your iPhone would display a QR code that a clerk uses to verify the purchase. You grab your donuts and leave, the transaction charged to your iTunes account and your receipt already on your phone.

As Mike Elgan points out in his post Why Apple’s ‘indoor GPS’ plan is brilliant{{3}}, it’s not much of stretch to consider some much more interesting scenarios.

[[3]]Mike Elgan (14th September 2013), Why Apple’s ‘indoor GPS’ plan is brilliant, Computer World.[[3]]

A customer could scan the labels on clothing, process the transaction on the phone, then stroll out of the store with purchases in hand (the alarm would be de-activated for those items).

This is a solution that could be supported tomorrow on all iPhone 4Ss through to the new iPhone 5C. The hardware required to create an iBeacon is already available and it’s cheap, often in the 10s of US$.

NFC continues to struggle and it seems that Apple might have pulled together a solution that makes it irrelevent.

BPM over promised and under delivered

One Saturday night the other week I was typing away on a book that I’m working on (probably called The new instability. How cloud computing, globalisation and social media enable to you to create an unfair advantage) and I let out what was probably a quite involved tweet without any context to explain it.

[blackbirdpie id=”59188145870213120″]

Recently I’ve been thinking about the shift we’re seeing in the business environment. The world seems pretty unstable at the moment. Most business folk assume that this is simply a transition between two stable states, similar to what we’ve seen in the past. This time, however, business seems to be unable to settle into a new groove. The idea behind the book is that the instability we’re seeing is now the normal state of play.

Since Frederick Taylor’s time we’ve considered business – our businesses – vast machines to be improved. Define the perfect set of tasks and then fit the men to the task. Taylor timed workers, measuring their efforts to determine the optimal (in his opinion) amount of work he could expect from a worker in a single day. The idea is that by driving our workers to follow optimal business processes we can ensure that we minimise costs while improving quality. LEAN and Six Sigma are the most visible of Taylor’s grandchildren, representing generations of effort to incrementally chip away at the inefficiencies and problems we kept finding in our organisations.

This is the same mentality – incremental and internally focused, intent on optimising each and every task in our organisations – that we’ve used to apply technology to business. Departmental applications were first deployed to automate small repetitive tasks, such as tracking stock levels or calculating payrolls. Then we looked at the interactions between these tasks, giving birth to enterprise software in the process. Business Process Management (BPM) is the pinnacle of our more recent efforts – pulling in everything from our customers through to suppliers to create optimal straight through processes for our organisation to rely on.

Some vendors have taken this approach to its logical extreme, imagining (and trying to get us to buy) a single technology platform which will allow us to programme our entire business: business operating platforms1)Ismael Ghalimi (2009), Introducing the Business Operating Platform, IT|Redux. They’re aligning elements in the BPM technology stack with the major components found in most computers under the (mistaken) assumption that this will enable them to create a platform for the entire business. Business as programmable machine writ large.

The problem, as I’ve pointed out before2)Business is not a programming challenge @ PEG, is that:

Programming is the automation of the known. Business processes, however, are the management and anticipation of the unknown.

Business is not a computer, with memory, CPUs and disks, and the hope of creating an Excel with which we can play what if with the entire business is simply tilting at windmills.

The focus of business is, and always has been, problems and the people who solve them. Technology is simply a tool we’ve used to amplify these people, starting with the invention of writing through to modern SaaS applications and BPM suites. While technology has had a previously unimaginable impact on business, it can’t (yet) replace the people who solve the problems which create all the value. People collaborate, negotiate, and smash together ideas to find new solutions to old problems. Computers simply replicate what they are told to do.

We’ve reached Taylorism’s use-by date. Define the perfect task and fit the man to the task no longer works. The pace of business has accelerated to the point that the environment we operate in has become perpetually unstable, and this is pushing us to become externally focused, rather than internally focused. We’re stopped worrying about collecting resources to focus on our reactions to problems and opportunities as they present themselves. Computing (calculating payrolls, invoices, or gunnary tables) is less important as it can be obtained on demand, and we’re more concerned with the connections between ourselves and our clients, partners, suppliers and even our competitors. And we’re shifted our focus from collecting ever more data as it becomes increasingly important to ask the questions which enable us to make the right decisions and drive our business forward.

Success today in today’s unstable environment means matching the tactic – process – to the goal we’re trying to achieve and our current environment, with different tactics being using in different circumstances. Rather than support one true way, we need to support multiple ways.

There has been some half steps in the right direction, with the emergence of Adaptive Case Management (ACM)3)Keith D. Swenson (2010), Mastering the Unpredictable, Meghan-Kiffer Press. being the most obvious one. A typical case study for ACM might be something like resolving SWIFT payment exceptions. When the ACM process is triggered a knowledge worker creates a case and starts building a context by pulling data in and triggering small workflows or business processes to seek out data and resolve problems. At some stage the context will be complete, the exception resolved, and the final action is triggered. Contrast this with the standard BPM case study, which is typically a compliance story. (It’s no surprise that regulations such as SOX drove a lot of business processes work.) BPM is a task dependency tool, making it very good at specifying the steps in the required process, but unable to cope with exceptions.

So what do we replace the Talyorism’s catch cry with? The following seems to suit, rooted as it is in the challenge of winning in a rapidly changing environment.

Identify the goal and then assemble the perfect team to achieve the goal.

Note: This was also posted on noprocess.org.

References   [ + ]

1. Ismael Ghalimi (2009), Introducing the Business Operating Platform, IT|Redux
2. Business is not a programming challenge @ PEG
3. Keith D. Swenson (2010), Mastering the Unpredictable, Meghan-Kiffer Press.