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Blockchain and other buzzwords demystified

Sep 29, 2019
Ray daSilva of Mobility Exchange unlocks some of the jargon of modern communications technology.

Blockchain and Other Buzzwords Demystified
Most of us view ourselves as belonging to a basic service industry where business and reputation are built on a passion for service excellence. To help us deliver a better, more personalised service experience to our customer, we rely not only on our extremely valuable employees but on various tools, equipment, and computers as well. Increasingly those tools involve technology.

In the world of technology it is a challenge, and almost impossible for some, to keep up with emerging trends and innovations.

These days the technology buzzwords being dangled about are blockchain, data standards and interoperability. For the technology-averse, these are nebulous concepts that are easier to tune out and label as fleeting fads rather than possibilities and opportunities to embrace and be excited about.

Do these buzzwords have anything to do with delivering moving services?

Let’s put things in perspective.  The human element of our business is here to stay - at least in the near term.  Robots and artificial intelligence are advancing at warp speed but based on current predictions, fully autonomous trucks and cars are still more than 10 years away.  And despite the proliferation of chat bots, customer service still benefits more from a well-trained, professional human voice. This will most likely remain the same in the near-term future.

It is useful to think of these developments as additional tools that will help us to be more customer-facing rather than technologies that will replace the need for human interaction.  Rather than asking our staff to spend time on mundane, redundant activities, we can free them up to do what humans do best – relate to our customers and use our unique cognitive skills to improve our service delivery.

What is all the hype about blockchain?

Blockchain technology holds the potential to deliver huge improvements in efficiency and data accuracy.  These are things we should all be interested in.  Our business relies on translating customer requirements into operational language and communicating those in real time to all the parties involved in the service.  When you consider the number of separate parties involved in an international move, it is easy to see how communication can easily break down and lead to service failures.

To understand blockchain, let’s relate it to written ledgers.  Let’s use a simple example of a property transfer.  Before computers and databases, a written ledger was used by a local government entity to record a property transfer.  The ledger recorded the date of the transaction, the property description and the parties to the transaction.  The ledger was kept in a safe place and there were rules about who could view it and who could write entries in it.

If ten years later, the property got sold again, the ledger would be taken out.  Under the last recorded transfer for that property, a new entry would be recorded.  The old entry would not be erased or overwritten; the new transfer entry or block of data would simply be added to the ledger.  These blocks of data formed a chain in sequence, and this established who the rightful current owner of the property was.  Because the previous blocks of data were always retained, the chain of data was considered immutable.  That means the previous data entries remained unchanged; while updates were recorded as new blocks, the old data was always there for historic reference.

Roles and rules

With blockchain, the data is not necessarily stored in one computer but in many different computers that are part of the chain.  The structure of the blockchain usually requires a consensus among these computers to authenticate that a party wishing to add a new block of data has the right role or credentials to add this new ledger entry.  There are also business rules that are built into the blockchain structure that define what kind of data may be recorded and when.  The protocols for these authentications are performed by computer algorithms in fairly real time so there is usually little delay in the process.

What about the moving business?

One of the potential applications of this technology is to help establish a structure that could facilitate data interchange among various companies that are working on the same move but are using different computer systems.  While each company could be using a different software that catalogues information in a unique way, a transaction file itself can be considered a sophisticated ledger. 

Imagine a ledger in a trusted ‘data warehouse’ with spaces for information such as: ‘Customer Last Name’, ‘Customer Address’, ‘Move Date’ and the hundreds of other fields required in a move transaction file.  Your computer system may call the Customer Last Name ‘Surname’ while your colleague’s system may call it ‘Family Name’.  If the field in the ledger is called ‘Last Name’ and each system maps accordingly to the ledger, then the name ‘Smith’ will find its way from one computer system to the next through the standardised protocols in the ledger.

Now add the business rules to the structure which define various roles (Move Manager, Origin Service Provider, Destination Service Provider, Customs Broker, etc.) and specify what fields those roles may view or edit and when. 

Clearly, this is oversimplification and there are thousands of devils in the detail but hopefully you are starting to see the potential. 

Now what?

The technology to facilitate such a system is available today.  The challenge is to create and implement industry accepted standards for the data interchange and for the business rules of engagement.  The benefits to industry members and customers should be quite clear.  In some logistics-related businesses, it is estimated that more than 20% of every revenue dollar goes into processing transaction-related data.  If you add the financial impact of inefficiencies related to invoicing, collecting and service failures related to the lack of a trusted data interchange, then the 20% estimate may be too low. 

This is why the logistics industry is so excited about the potential of blockchain and a more seamless process for data interchange.  Just as you do not need to know how a carburettor works to use a truck, you do not need to know the technical aspects of how blockchain works.  Understanding how to leverage this technology in your business and supporting the collaborative efforts to bring this technology to the moving industry – now that is what should interest you.

Photo (inset): Ray daSilva of Mobility Exchange.

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