Is “Death by Blockchain” coming to EDI?

Blockchain! The latest in a long line of modern technologies to take the headlines by storm. If you’re new to this then a really informative read on how it works and where it can be applied can be found here. It is a section from within this document and as a result of viewing a promotional video from a high street bank here in the UK, that I paused for a moment and came to the realisation that this technology could become the most serious threat yet, to our beloved EDI!

The Premise

The premise is simple, Blockchain technology is secure, fully auditable and totally transparent. Where EDI has it’s downfall is largely the complex nature of the mapping and cross mapping reference tables coupled together with the multiple VAN/ FTP/ AS2 (etc) message transport protocols and no single agreeable global format for communication exchange. I mean, ANSI X12  is still being widely used despite a call for an EDIFACT standard to be incorporated and quite frankly there is only one winner in this world of confusion, the EDI integration providers. Even the introduction of PEPPOL, which was halo-ed as the “VAN KILLER”, has done little more than adding further complexity to an already mystifying and cross-industry expense-inducing business requirement. Even the most remote African farmer is required, by the larger super market chains, to be EDI compliant or they incur a financial penalty for not being so, hence why Fax to EDI became yet another protocol!

So why is it that this laggard seems so irreplaceable?

EDI has been with us for over 30 years now and, in my opinion anyway, should be awarded a major resilience prize, but it is not without help from us. By “us” I mean human-beings and our immunity to change. To this day, an EDI industry colleague of mine informs me, companies are still requesting email orders to be integrated into their ERP as a quasi EDI form.  We are inherently sceptical of anything new and frequently apply the rule of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” EDI, however, has actually been broken for quite some time, not to the extent that it doesn’t work, but it certainly doesn’t work efficiently anymore. It was built in a digital era where less was more and by that, I mean less in terms of bits and bytes. The smaller the message the less it would cost when being transmitted over the VAN (Value Added Network for those not familiar with this acronym). A well used, but still very valid, argument for the use of EDI is the comparison of the cost of postage versus the cost of a digital transmission. ROI is demonstrated over the software set-up costs and, depending on volume, this initial cost can be easily recouped within the first 6 to 12 months. It has taken years of persuasion to take on this worldwide adoption of technology and when we consider that in today’s digital world, mindset changes over 30 years are equal to 300 years of the pre-digital era it can surely only be a matter of time before the laggards of the EDI move forward into a new era of document exchange. On the flipside, and probably another reason why there is such an immunity to change is the capricious nature of software and product development by the likes of Google. It was only a few years back that I was forced to move to a more stable multi platform note taking environment because Google decided to can theirs. And similarly, that happened to my blog a few years prior to that too.

So in short, I do believe that Blockchain will add real value to the world of document exchange. It will create a more transparent, secure and robust environment upon which businesses can develop their own unique document exchange programs, which can freely and simply interface with another organisation and reduce human error, by reducing human interaction and simplifying the communication. However, it is the human at the end of this chain, the one like you and I, who will ultimately decide how quickly this happens and also the one who decides if they will allow their jobs to be taken by AI. As the old saying goes, “to err is human, to completely mess it all up requires a computer!”