How Much Should Associations Care About Blockchain?

Long the subject of breathless hype, blockchain technology has started to find its way into real-world use cases. A recent whitepaper highlights where associations and their members might come into play.

For a while, it seemed like blockchain was everywhere as a buzzword, right?

It certainly hasn’t faded away entirely—but perhaps the hype train is finally giving way to real-world attempts to make it useful for specific organizations. To give you an idea of where things stand, here are just a few examples from stories published just in the past week:

Walmart announced that, in collaboration with IBM, KGMG, and Merck, it would launch a second blockchain trial to improve prescription drug traceability. Walmart and IBM have worked together on this issue since 2016. Meanwhile, its big-box competitor, Target, is working on a blockchain for tracking its supply chains.

AT&T and T-Mobile are each using blockchain technology for different aspects of their firms, according to Forbes—in the case of AT&T, for supply chain tracking, and for T-Mobile, for use in identity and access management for its customers and employees.

The National Association of Realtors, as a part of its strategic investment arm Second Century Ventures, invested in a startup named Poppy that applies the blockchain to real-world transactions.

Nevada passed a series of laws designed to encourage the use of blockchain in the state, including the creation of a regulatory sandbox and a law that explicitly allows companies to use a blockchain to store public records.

While the sheen of innovation is reflected in some of these moves and there’s definitely some speculation going on, we’re clearly at a point where things feel less pie-in-the-sky and, potentially, more tangible—even if you may not actually see your own organization using it just yet.

Should Associations Care?

But the early hype definitely made an imprint on Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, the CEO and chief strategist of Spark Consulting, who noted that she was inspired to dig in deeper after hearing the topic come up repeatedly at the 2018 edition of the digitalNow conference—when, she says, the tech “was truly in the ‘buzzword’ stage.”

That was the spark for a ‌Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise, a report she wrote with Shelly Alcorn, CAE, chief operating and curriculum officer of Ubiquity University and principal of Alcorn Associates Management Consulting.

“People had heard of it and maybe had some general idea what it was, but not many people seemed to truly understand how it works and, more importantly, why it might matter to associations,” Engel  explained in an email. “I wanted to understand it better myself, so I texted Shelly right from the conference to ask if she was interested in working on a white paper with me.”

The resulting report, which came out in April, focuses less on the intangibles and more on what the technology will actually look like once it’s been locked into place.

In the report’s introductory sections, Alcorn and Engel first imagine paint a future scenario in which an association executive finds blockchain integrated into their daily routine, then puncture holes in the hype bubble. But even with the hype successfully deflated, they argue that “the blockchain story is just beginning.” From the report:

As the technology begins to mature, social-good innovators and entrepreneurs are beginning to look at ways it can be deployed to solve real-world problems, like verifying identity for refugees or homeless people who’ve lost their documents, ensuring aid money gets used as intended and not misappropriated, providing micro-payments to unbanked small business owners in developing economies, furnishing unalterable land ownership records as a bulwark against corrupt or chaotic governments, and verifying the provenance of goods to ensure ethical and environmentally sound production and manufacturing processes. In other words, solving pressing problems for the least fortunate and most vulnerable.

That kind of approach sounds chock-full of potential for associations, but the authors are careful to note that it might need more time out in the wild, or it may need to more carefully be thought through for associations. And some organizations might not want to put their investment into tech like this at the moment, especially as such emerging technologies don’t always prove to be good fits for associations.

“Blockchain solves problems that may not actually exist—or may not be significant enough to merit gambling on a technology that’s still in its relative infancy—in the association industry,” they add.

But there are a lot of areas where it could prove useful to association members, and the report details a number of areas in which the technology might gain traction:

Credentialing, which has clear and obvious value for associations, according to Alcorn, who said that it helped her realize there was value in the medium for associations. “When I saw the first moves into blockchain coming from the Open Badges initiatives and MIT, my interest was sparked,” she said in an email. In the report, Tim Haynes, the founder of the tech research firm Signal & Story, agreed that the value proposition was clear: “Any institution that offers any sort of credential or degree will start moving to blockchain, where verification is a simple, automated process, and all parties have a vested interest in making it so. Everyone wins.”

Risk management, which is being built out for the construction field but the authors say could easily be applied to events.

Persistent identity, which could ease issues for international travelers in proving who they are.

Contract compliance, which the authors say could help ensure the creation of contracts without the need of third parties like lawyers.

Supply chain management, where the authors say blockchain is already having a direct effect.

Proving ownership, which could make complicated financial transactions easier.

Ultimately, Alcorn and Engel make clear that the blockchain matters—though you may need to spend some time separating the hype from the true benefit. “The truth, we think, lies somewhere between Silicon Valley utopian ‘it’s going to revolutionize EVERYTHING’ and dismissive ‘it’s just a fad,’” the authors wrote.

Engel emphasized in her emailed comments that this status between hype and reality will make blockchain important to understand, even if you’re not using it right now.

“When it takes off, it’s likely going to feel like it happened overnight,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to start educating staff and board members now, so when you need to make quick decisions, you’re already knowledgeable to do so.”

Perhaps the blockchain isn’t quite ready for associations just yet, but there’s a lot of reason to take it seriously. You might be using it as an important resource sooner than you think.

(filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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