Blockchain no silver bullet, but IBM says supply chains are ripe for the tech

COVID-19 has highlighted weaknesses in supply chains globally, and IBM reckons blockchain is a perfect fit for providing traceability and transparency.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in global supply chains, and like many countries, Australia experienced panic-buying of everyday items such as toilet paper, hand sanitiser, and pasta as word of government-mandated social distancing rules spread.

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According to IBM, such panic-buying has provided a dramatic demonstration of how most supply chain leaders are still working in the reactive phase of how to deal with this pandemic.

The tech giant believes that those in supply chains should take this as an opportunity to identify actions now that would improve their resilience. Such actions include implementing technologies like blockchain.

"We're not saying that blockchain will fix everything. You can't just install blockchain and suddenly, miraculously, you have no problems with supply chains," head of blockchain for IBM in Australia and New Zealand Rupert Colchester said.

"If you could rewind a year, or two years, let's just say, and you spend some time drastically improving some of these major supply chains, both cross-border, cross-continent, for large numbers of products, then you probably would have seen a different state of affairs in the global supply chain right now."

Colchester said sharp spikes in demand for certain items, which wasn't foreseen, and how best to respond to that is one thing people are currently looking at.

"And blockchain wouldn't miraculously fix that but what it does do is it gives that level of transparency and enables … the ability for an end consumer or an end customer of something like this to see that the shortfall is coming from a supply perspective and to raise his hand early and say, 'We're going to need something here, I can see that there's a shortage on warehouse shelves', for example, and that is transmitted through the whole supply chain of any product or industry vertical -- would definitely have helped things," he told ZDNet.

See: How blockchain will disrupt business (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

According to Colchester, blockchain is only one of a number of technologies IBM sees as an enabler for business transformation and value can be best achieved when used alongside Internet of Things or sensor tech, 5G, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and robotics and automation, among others.

Also imperative to successful blockchain implementation, he said, is an understanding that most implementations tend to require "collaboration", that is within a company and across departments, or between companies.

"The power of blockchain definitely is at its highest when you are creating those trusted links between organisations," Colchester said. "That's such a such a paradigm shift to the traditional business, how do you exchange data securely in a trustworthy manner with potentially even a competitor of yours?"

He said consumers are demanding more and more transparency and sustainability across supply chains.

"You can drive completely new levels of transparency with blockchain, you can share things with people that you might have otherwise been completely reluctant to share stuff with, in a secure way, and to create transparency down a supply chain and you can also do that bidirectionally which was historically been very hard to do," he added.

"In Australia, we as an economy, we have to recognise and acknowledge that value chain has to collaborate in order to capitalise on all this stuff. It doesn't just happen in a silo, one organisation."

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