A quick lesson on blockchain for accountants: Part 4 – blockchain uses in accounting.
Okay, from my previous posts now you know a little about cryptography. And, you also know that bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) is managed decentrally. In the bitcoin system, transactions are verified as genuine (among other things) by cryptography – you can imagine how useless the system might be otherwise. This is achieved through a blockchain, which I will now explain briefly.
A block is essentially a transaction or group of transactions – in bitcoin, each block contains a megabyte of data (presently). When a block is full, a new block is added – hence the term blockchain. As blocks are added, the cryptography used links a block to the previous block. This means that the transactions can be verified all the way back to the original block, and it cannot be tampered with.
Also, I already wrote a little about bitcoin mining, and from that post, you can see that the blockchain for bitcoin is public – in effect a public distributed ledger of every bitcoin transaction that has ever happened.
What does blockchain mean or accountants then? Well to start, blockchain is a technology which is separable from things like bitcoin. It is the verifiable ledger that may be most appealing to business and the world of accounting. Businesses may soon be using blockchain in a less public way than bitcoin, using some form of private blockchain. Let me try to give an example of how accounting is done today, versus how it could be done with a blockchain.
I formerly worked in the paper business, in the cardboard packing part. Back then and still I would imagine, pharmaceutical companies would not allows recycled paper, due to the risk of contamination. The company I worked for had to maintain records to show the sources of all materials in an order for a pharmaceutical company. Just focusing on the accounting, there are four ledgers at play – the paper supplier, the cardboard manufacturer, the pharmaceutical company and the end vendor. All while four may have quite integrated systems within their own company, all four are likely not linked. And if they were linked, how can the truth and verifiability of the transactions be maintained. Here is where blockchain can help. Using a blockchain and its encrypted data, one single transaction can in theory flow through all four ledgers – and remain unchanged and verifiable. Also, the pharmaceutical company in this example can be sure that records are intact and full traceability of materials used maintained. This is just one example, and anything that involves traceability could benefit – I am sure auditors would have many uses for blockchain technology.
So where is the catch? If blockchain is used privately within a firm, then we can trust the hardware involved – no bitcoin miners needed. The catch at present is the energy usage. To solve the cryptography used in blockchain takes a lot of computing power and thus energy. At present, the energy used for bitcoin processing alone in a year is similar to the power consumption of a small country like Ireland. Less energy guzzling ideas are being worked on.