Blockchain As A Competitive Edge? CFOs Should Think Twice Before Saying No

By March 10, 2019 Ethereum
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CFOs are usually skeptical about talk of game-changing innovation. Discussions around blockchain are going to be different.

There's a reason some jokers in business refer to their finance group as the "sales prevention department." Corporate CFOs and controllers take very seriously their responsibility for safeguarding company resources, especially cash. When it comes to investing in new technology, the typical CFO is likely to say "no" right off the bat, and force the person making the capital request back to the drawing board.

Investing in blockchain technology, whether as a penny saver or game changer, should involve a different dynamic. People on the business side should be extra careful to avoid hype and instead argue the strategic benefits of exploring and experimenting with this new approach to data storage and verification. CFOs, for their part, will want to check their natural impulses and keep an open mind.

Unlike 3D TV, blockchain tech is here to stay. According to survey findings published in December by Deloitte Consulting LLP:

"While blockchain is not quite ready for primetime, it is getting closer to its breakout moment every day. The academic hypotheses of five years ago are steadily becoming a reality. Momentum is shifting from a focus on learning and exploring the potential of the technology to identifying and building practical business applications."

A clear majority (78 percent) of business executives who responded to the survey believed their firms stand to lose competitive advantage if they do not eventually implement blockchain. The sampling of opinion involved more than 1,000 senior managers from seven countries.

The key word here is "eventually," a concept that does not fit neatly into traditional financial metrics for assessing the business value expected from new tech tools. Consider one common yardstick CFOs use: payback period. That metric ignores the potential economic bonanza generated after the break-even period. Worse, it's terrifyingly narrow in the face of inventions that will change the way businesses operate over the long run.

CFOs need to think differently about blockchain technology, which any sane person will agree is in its early days. Deloitte notes that "84 percent [of survey respondents] said that blockchain will eventually reach mainstream adoption." The big "but" is that half said blockchain is either (a) not listed among their organizations' top five strategic priorities or (b) not considered a priority at all.

The apparent contradiction is understandable. Industries and individual enterprises stationed at the bleeding edge are just now moving out of the proof-of-concept stage and starting to build applications that will be improved, chucked out, or reinvented as times goes by. And many large enterprises prefer to wait and see, letting the early adopters fail first, then coming up from behind to grab the lessons learned.

Deloitte says the best move now is for CFOs and their C-suite counterparts to set aside the tech-oriented debates and focus instead "on how blockchain will potentially disrupt or shift your operating model." The advisory firm went on to suggest that "at the very least, keep an eye on blockchain so that [you] can take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves." Take pains to understand the transformative nature of blockchain and insist that senior team leaders set up listening posts inside and outside your industry. Finally, take steps now to evolve with the stories of success as well as failure.

It is also smart to have a small, internal pilot or two. "It may be best to focus on an internal issue such as intercompany transactions," says Deloitte. That process is known for being slow, error-prone, and labor intensive. The firm refers to one case (name withheld) of a large global company that has more than 2,000 people working to track, store, audit, and account for transactions involving the transfer of data and payments among 1,000+ worldwide subsidiaries. The cost of maintaining this broken legacy is no doubt off the charts. CFOs should put away yesterday's performance metrics and educate themselves and their teams on how blockchain applications could possibly help.

Mary Driscoll covers finance and business trends as a staff writer for ETHNews. She formerly served as an editor for management and finance at the Economist Intelligence Unit and a research principal at APQC. In addition, she has written for The Wall Street Journal CFO Report, HBR-online, and strategy + business. Her book on corporate treasury management was published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Mary enjoys hiking and skiing in the Sierras with family. Her goal in life is to win big on Jeopardy.

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