Top Blockchain Challenge: Human Interoperability

I’d like to acknowledge Danielle Stanko, Andreas Freund, Desmond McKenzie and Kelly Kinnebrew for their generous contributions to this article.

blockchain adoption
PwC: Top Barriers To Blockchain Adoption.

PWC recently surveyed 600 corporate executives about barriers to blockchain adoption. They found that trust, “the very problem that blockchain was meant to solve remains one of its most significant hurdles in corporate adoption.” 1 While regulatory uncertainty was cited by survey respondents most often in their top three challenges, other widely known barriers like blockchain interoperability and scalability finished 4th and 5th, respectively in the survey. The 2nd and 3rd most cited challenges were lack of trust among users and the ability to bring networks together.  These two barriers speak to people’s willingness and ability to collaborate in blockchain ecosystems and I refer to them together as the human interoperability challenge.

The Blockchain Human Interoperability Challenge

The survey results aren’t surprising because implementing blockchains is about co-creating ecosystems. It’s about people collaborating, acting on common interest and creating shared value. You might say that blockchains are about making humans interoperable. And let’s face it, humans haven’t historically been all that interoperable. In my experience with blockchain, I’ve found willingness to collaborate to be a bigger barrier for enterprise blockchain initiatives while the ability to collaborate (i.e – align complementary but disparate projects) is a more prevalent barrier within the blockchain startup community. In this post, I’ll focus on the willingness to collaborate.

Willingness To Collaborate Is About Mindset

Public (permissionless) blockchains are trustless, which means they are designed to function where participants don’t trust or even know each other.  Conversely, private (permissioned) blockchains are generally operated by a group of trusted participants. In either case, because blockchains involve the creation of shared business models, developing them requires the fundamental elements of trust and a collaborative mindset. This mindset can be challenging in corporate cultures that are grounded in intellectual property protection (finished 6th in the survey) and creating competitive advantage. The concept of creating value collectively within or across industries can seem counterintuitive in many enterprises. In fact, an executive recently told me that the top goal of her blockchain proof of concept was to determine whether her company could collaborate. The following quote from Gartner researcher David Furlonger illustrates the struggle many enterprises face when contemplating blockchain initiatives:

“If we built our companies, our industries based around a paradigm of centralised control  centralised control of customers, product, manufacturing environment etc – are we prepared to relinquish some of that control? Maybe into a consortia environment, maybe into an association of affiliated networks, what are the boundaries for that and how is that going to affect our ability to make money, to generate revenue for our stakeholders?” Furlonger said. “Do we really want this to happen?” he added.” 2

Blockchain ecosystems do indeed test boundaries and they challenge how value is generated and distributed. More importantly, they change how one defines stakeholders. In corporate culture, one advocates for its stakeholders by competing with others and their stakeholders, but in an ecosystem everyone shares stakeholders and creates value for them collectively. This concept can be challenging for those used to competing.

The emergence of ecosystems has fueled my interest in developmental psychology as a means to understand the mindsets that lead people to collaborate within ecosystems. I’ve found that the following collaborative mindset characteristics influence how likely one is to govern collectively and create shared value in ecosystems:

  • seeks experiences that require collaboration
  • prioritizes openness and sharing
  • focuses on problems that exist across stakeholders 
  • pursues profit in context of purpose and impact
  • is sensitive to how one’s actions impacts others
  • views value as more than a monetary concept

These collaborative mindset characteristics are the most critical success factors for enterprises to understand when innovating with blockchain.

Embracing A Collaborative Mindset

If you’re contemplating a blockchain initiative and are unsure whether your organization can embrace collaborative value creation models, consider the following:

Consumer preferences are shifting toward collaborative models

The collaborative (sharing) economy, peer to peer models, coworking and platform cooperatives all represent a shift in consumer preferences toward community centric values that’s emerging in the Millennial and Digital Native generations.  Adapting strategy to these preferences and experimenting with collaborative models is crucial for corporate innovation programs.

Countless blockchain projects are rapidly emerging

While blockchain is being widely promoted for its ability to disrupt nearly every industry, there are countless real world use cases and projects emerging within the blockchain ecosystem. While they could be viewed as threats, these projects also represent collaboration opportunities for enterprises.

You can’t acquire an ecosystem

If your enterprise has historically employed a “wait and see, then acquire” strategy regarding emerging technology, consider that the value of collaborative ecosystem models lies in the network effects of multiple participants playing complementary roles. An ecosystem isn’t synonymous with a platform and cannot be acquired for competitive advantage.

Only a few can dominate a market

Traditional corporate strategy seeks to dominate markets and maximize value for shareholders. In this paradigm, there can only be a few winners. The vast majority of players are relegated to the role of supplier or out of business altogether. As former ConsenSys spokesperson Amanda Gutterman explained:

“Right now the problem we’re facing is that there are a few very patient, very deep-pocketed actors that are playing a great game, which is trying to get all the data in the world in one place and under their control, and I think that’s the 800-pound gorilla of what’s going on in this room. That’s going to happen unless some system is successful in decentralizing some of that power.” 3

Enterprises need to understand that blockchain offers the network effects of collaboration as an alternative to a competitive strategy of market dominance. A collaborative blockchain ecosystem can redefine and level any playing field.

Establishing A Collaborative Mindset

So how can organizations work to establish a more collaborative mindset?  Here are five things to work on:

Establish Policies That Stimulate Collaboration

To model collaborative paradigms, try the following:

  • Set goals that require collaboration
  • Model radically transparent communication across boundaries
  • Open source assets to accelerate opportunities for co-innovation
  • Allow people to move freely across initiatives and organizations 

Overcome Uncertainty & Risk

The fear many people have when contemplating collaboration is losing control of what is important to them. To overcome this:

  • Find areas of shared interest so that collaboration is not equated with loss of control
  • Share investments across stakeholders to encourage mutual risk taking
  • Celebrate collaborative failures as learning experiences and providing guarantees that encourage people to fail forward together

Align Profit With Purpose

Nothing bonds people together better than intrinsically motivating purpose. While the pursuit of profit has historically been characterized by competition, consider blurring the lines between profit seeking, corporate social responsibility and broader societal issues.

  • Find a powerful, valuable purpose – identify “massive” business opportunities that advance societal causes and absolutely require a collaborative approach
  • Define a corporate why that inspires and attracts people from anywhere to your cause
  • Measure the value of your purpose in terms of benefits that accrue to stakeholders other than your shareholders and customers

Leverage & Align Personal Motivation

Most people are passionate about something. When that something is shared by others, bonds naturally form. To stimulate a collaborative mindset:

  • Encourage more self reflection and sharing of personal motivation so that it can be tapped as a vehicle for bonding and collaboration
  • Sometimes what motivates people most is being part of a movement.  Identify naturally collaborative people, make collaboration a movement and nurture first followers of the movement

Replicate/Proliferate Collaboration

To accelerate the emergence of a collaborative mindset, seek mentors from outside your organization and dedicate resources and effort to the process of becoming collaborative.

  • Join, support and learn from open collaborative projects whose, assets, capabilities and people complement your objectives
  • Create an applied research team that codifies learnings from collaboration efforts so that they can be replicated and applied to new efforts


While blockchain is still maturing with many technical challenges to be addressed, its success is at least as dependent upon our ability to embrace the collaborative value creation models it makes possible. It seems inevitable that the technical challenges will be overcome. Whether we humans take advantage of blockchain’s collaborative potential is yet to be determined.

Footnotes & References

  1. Survey finds a surprising barrier to blockchain adoption
  2. Just say no to blockchain (for now) advises Gartner
  3. The Big Deal About Blockchain, and Why it Matters to You
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