Thoughts from the blockchain intellectual junk drawer

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” Bill Gates

I think about this statement from one of our industry titans often in the course of my work, and I am starting to think it might need updating. This struck me hard listening to EY blockchain lead Paul Brody give a quick flyover of EY’s blockchain activities during the EY Global Analyst Summit held in Boston April 10-11. The event was very much a teaser for the upcoming EY Global Blockchain Summit.

General ledger history and blockchain as record keeping 2.0

Blockchain is a distributed ledger. It is a multienterprise business ledger and an evolution of the general ledger that has underpinned independent business record keeping for centuries. I consider the rate and pace of change and Gates’ quote above in that context when comparing general ledger adoption to blockchain adoption. Here are my log length — or rough cut — guidelines for calibrating the time it took for ubiquitous adoption of general ledger accounting, all sourced one evening for my idle curiosity on Wikipedia and Investopedia.

Luca Pacioli gets credit for creating the concept of double-entry bookkeeping in 1494 in Italy. As one would expect on Wikipedia, there’s debate about the timing, with some saying it was earlier. Log length the date to 1500.

The bigger challenge for me was searching for when general ledger accounting saw ubiquitous, global adoption. There is much written about public policy activities in the early 1900s in Brazil, which was not an economic powerhouse at that time, so one I would consider to be a laggard. In 1914 Brazil’s legislature sought to move its government to double-entry bookkeeping. However, that initial move did not really become codified until 1924. Log length that date to 1900.

In my opinion, based on this casual research, it took roughly 400 years for the general ledger to reach global adoption as a business and regulatory best practice. Throughout those 400 years, we had business cycles. We had disruptions. We had public policy leaders in deliberative bodies reacting to disruptions.

Are we overestimating or underestimating blockchain?

Blockchain has been around a little more than a decade. IBM has made big splashes with food trust, shipping and finance networks and now talks about the network of networks. In 2018 I attended EY’s global blockchain event and listened to what EY was doing with Microsoft around what is now called the Xbox network. I returned from this and other emerging technology events around quantum and been told to “lay off the caffeine,” that these technologies are years away. I regularly temper my timetable, thinking I am overestimating the two-year horizons and not heeding Gates’ prescient advice from the ‘90s.

And then I stand in the back of the EY main event with about 15% of the other attendees and get blown away by Brody as he speaks in a cadence reminiscent of the iconic Federal Express commercial to run though the progress EY and its customers have made in a year. I wonder in the moment if I am underestimating how soon blockchain will be delivering real business value to major enterprises and the small business partners with the technology vision and managerial agility to adjust their business models to these new record-keeping efficiencies.

The only thing I am certain about is uncertainty in an industry I’ve thought intensely about for over 35 years. The digital age is here in its embryonic form. It is more than a business rebirth; it is a societal rebirth in that digital changes business, government and daily human activities. Birth can be a wonderful thing, but labor can be a very painful process. Change management, as we hear time and time again at analyst events can, likewise, be a very painful process.

It took 400 years, multiple business boom and bust cycles, and countless public policy iterations for economic regulatory activity to stabilize, for the most part, after the great depression of 1929. Business models can now change far more rapidly than our deliberative bodies adapt their regulatory oversight practices. I used to think blockchain would spread at 10 times the rate or be ubiquitously adopted in 40 years. But I’m beginning to think that is a gross overestimation given how badly I underestimated what I thought was possible in a year. It makes me wonder if the signature Gates quote is ripe for refinement.

I look forward to learning more from Brody and the rest of the EY Blockchain team on April 16 in New York.

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