Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

John Friedman headshot

Blockchain - When We Are All Responsible

By John Friedman

I have to thank Dr. Wayne Visser* for once again inspiring an article. In this case, it was this graphic that he shared and a short post about how this shows the promise of blockchain to potentially change governance structures, organizations and ways of working from centralized to distributed.

It graphically illustrates a model in which we are all be accountable to - and responsible for - each other.

Think about this as “self-policing” actions that are close to you; it becomes easier to see how this can and should work. There are no single "integral" links - scary for traditional managers, I know. But just as a bridge is built with redundant struts, this also means that if one were to fail, through anything from a simple mistake to deliberate malfeasance, there are others to compensate.

Think about the team approach to safety, as an example. If everyone is looking out for the other person, knowing that several others are looking out for them, a safety culture is born. And incentives at the team or group level further reinforce this shared accountability, without turning the culture into one of suspicion or finger pointing.

The same thing can apply to almost any other dimension of environmental, social or governance. And it can transcend organizational structures and boundaries, so that suppliers, customers and those within the community are all engaged. This may be somewhat idealistic, but the promise of blockchain - even as I cannot begin to explain the underlying technology - is that this level of transparency makes it easy for “error checking” and “self correction” in real-time.

Some companies will leverage this for storytelling; others will be able to show purchasers the source and supply chain in order to show and tell a compelling story. But for me, the far greater implications, and importance, rely in facilitating responsible and sustainable business processes.

For example, I have heard of examples where items can be traced back to their source in minutes rather than days or weeks. Think about the implications for a product that is, for the sake of argument, found to be out of specifications and therefore potentially dangerous. This digital “network” of accountability can not only determine the source, but where the products ended up, resulting in removing the questionable items faster while not limiting distribution of those that are good. Faster, more effective and complete and without causing any unnecessary interruptions or distress - or, of course, wasting things that are perfectly good because we cannot be sure.

The "secret sauce" of the technology is the way it fixes and time-stamps blocks of data by consensus and records any changes by adding new blocks in the chain. This promotes transparency and trust.

- Dr. Wayne Visser

Is this theoretical? Perhaps. But this is the coming promise and it will be a reality one day soon. I reached out to Dr. Visser to ask if he wanted to comment further and he offered this reflection:
"Blockchain is still massively over-hyped (many think it is the solution to everything, which it is not). Yet the potential for disrupting traditional ways of working and organizing is profound. By moving from hierarchical to distributed decision making, it can cut out managerial bottlenecks, and by moving from hierarchical to distributed (and encrypted) information storage, it can make our knowledge more secure. The "secret sauce" of the technology is the way it fixes and time-stamps blocks of data by consensus and records any changes by adding new blocks in the chain. This promotes transparency and trust. Companies like Provenance are already using blockchain to validate sustainable supply chains, linked to supportive micro-finance for producers. In the future, such traceable value chains will become standard practice - and also assist with our move to a circular economy."
*Dr.Wayne Visser is Professor of Integrated Value and holds the Chair in Sustainable Transformation at Antwerp Management School, supported by BASF, Port of Antwerp and Randstad.
John Friedman headshot

John Friedman is an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies live their values and engage in authentic conversations by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. He's the author of Managing Sustainability: First Steps to First Class.

John Friedman is Managing Director, ESG & Sustainability Services for Grant Thornton, LLP.

On digital media, Friedman is recognized as a thought leader; on TriplePundit’s List of the Top 30 Sustainability Bloggers on Twitter, #3 on GreenBiz list of most influential 'Twitterati', #14 on Guardian Business’ 30 most influential sustainability voices in America, was voted #4 of the "100 leading voices in CSR" by Global CEO Magazine readers, and has regularly been included among the top voices in CSR by Forbes.

Read more stories by John Friedman