It can be hard to remember how we coped before the internet. Among its biggest changes has been the way we store, send and share information. The internet lets us take information, and copy, print, edit and do what we like with it.
But not all types of information can or should be replicated with such abandon. The internet may have made it convenient to exchange information, but it cannot replace the powerful intermediaries that control the value of information. Governments, banks and universities still confirm our identities and vouch for our trustworthiness.
A new technology, blockchain, has the potential to transform the world as profoundly as the internet did by distributing information. Blockchain can be considered an internet of value. It is a secure, globally distributed platform where we can store and exchange information. As such, it has immediate applications for HR, recruitment and people management, which all rely on forms of validation.
So how does it work? Like an accounting ledger where nothing is erased but new line entries are added, blockchain records transactions with unprecedented reliability.
Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin – which are based on blockchain technology – are challenging the financial industry. But blockchain can do so much more. It is a technical solution that can record virtually anything of value, from birth certificates to tax returns. And because it can authenticate in the most secure manner, it is an ideal way to establish trust between individuals.
Trust in blockchain’s security is well-founded. It relies on an advanced form of asymmetric cryptography. This is a fancy way of saying you have two keys to unlock one safe: a key for encryption and one for decryption. It is safer than a single cloud-based service because a digital record is posted globally across multiple computers. Each item of data is added to a block of other information to form a chain. It makes the system virtually impossible to crack, as criminals would need to hack all of these highly encrypted computers simultaneously.
How can blockchain, when considered as the ‘internet of value’, be used in the workplace?
When evaluating job candidates, companies rely on standard tools such as CVs, academic records and references. Simple checks can be made on a candidate’s previous employment, length of service, job title and salary, while an educational institution authenticates academic qualifications.
With blockchain, a ‘living CV’ can be imagined that allows people to keep track not only of their formal qualifications but also other relevant experiences – such as seminars attended, offsite training programmes or MOOCs – that demonstrate their curiosity and continuous learning. A living CV can also document and validate particular career highlights such as special projects, overseas assignments or secondments.
In a world of increasing decentralisation of work, Ethereum is a blockchain-based company that creates tools for managing ‘smart contracts’. A smart contract’s computer code manages the pay and performance of workers, especially freelance or contract workers.
Smart contracts could even change management structures within an organisation through non-hierarchical distribution of work. It could define roles (rather than job titles), share work (rather than assign it) and establish clear rules and lines of accountability (rather than resorting to office politics).
In professional accreditation
It takes at least three years to earn a tertiary degree in the UK, but four in the US. Some MBA programmes are two years long, others take a year. Variations in accreditation systems raise questions about the relative value of similar qualifications.
To put it another way, is it more or less reassuring if your doctor or lawyer earned their credentials in half the time it took their peers to do the same? Blockchain can even up those differences by documenting details about any additional experience gained during a period of study.
Blockchain redefines how we interact with one another; it removes the need for expensive and slow-moving intermediaries. It has the potential to deepen the relationship between employees and HR without the expense and bureaucracies of intermediaries. The internet of value is the coming revolution.
Claire Masson is a digital learning specialist at the Financial Times IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance