Cooperation needed to make blockchain a win-win for everyone

 From left, George Abernathy, chief revenue officer of FreightWaves; Dale Chrystie, vice president of strategic planning & support for FedEx Freight; Craig Harper, COO of J.B. Hunt; and Ron Piwetz, enterprise architect for BNSF, listen to a question during a panel discussion during the BiTA Spring Symposium on Monday.

From left, George Abernathy, chief revenue officer of FreightWaves; Dale Chrystie, vice president of strategic planning & support for FedEx Freight; Craig Harper, COO of J.B. Hunt; and Ron Piwetz, enterprise architect for BNSF, listen to a question during a panel discussion during the BiTA Spring Symposium on Monday.

As blockchain technology works its way into the transportation ecosystem, there is remains plenty to learn about its potential, but its success will depend on multiple parties working together, concurred a panel of leading transportation experts on Monday at the Blockchain in Transport Alliance’s (BiTA) Spring Symposium.

“If I were to create a bumper sticker right now, it would be ‘blockchain: A team sport,’” said Dale Chrystie, vice president of strategic planning & support for FedEx Freight.

Chrystie was joined on the panel, entitled “End User Perspectives on Blockchain Technology, by Craig Harper, COO of J.B. Hunt and Ron Piwetz, enterprise architect, BNSF. The panel was moderated by George Abernathy, chief revenue officer for FreightWaves.

Chrystie noted that everyone is still learning about blockchain and its potential uses, but that as an industry, we need to move past the current mindset that limits innovation. “Currently, people think of things as win-lose,” he said. “We’re all competitive [but] we need to get to the point where it’s win-win.

“I don’t know if we’ve reached the point where we [can acknowledge] that working together on blockchain accelerates it for all of us and gets us to that win-win,” Chrystie added. “We are going to find a way to work together.”

Harper echoed those thoughts. J.B. Hunt already collaborates with BNSF on intermodal operations, but Harper pointed out that to truly benefit from all that blockchain can provide, parties will have to work together. The ability to move products from “shore to store” means those products move on various modes, and without cooperation, blockchain will be less effective.

The strength of the blockchain is in its overall collective, Piwetz said, “when you have companies pooling their data.”

BNSF has developed a blockchain lab to help business partners develop smart contracts and work on other blockchain projects. J.B. Hunt and FedEx also have significant blockchain-related projects or groups working on the technology. Harper, for one, is “very excited” about what blockchain might deliver.

“We don’t have the perfect use case yet,” he said. “Some people say it’s a solution in search of a problem. I don’t believe that. I believe there are going to be some great use cases.”

One possible solution might be in dispute resolution, said Chrystie. To illustrate, he noted that at FedEx a common problem is when a delivery is made and something is missing. It becomes difficult to track what happened because each party speaks a different language, he said. The shipper may track the shipment by billing number while the end customer may identify it by PO number. A common language is needed, Chrystie said, and that may be the SKU.

All three panelists believe efficiency and cost reduction will be among the early benefits of blockchain. “We’re still faxing papers to [some] people to get approvals,” Harper related. “With all the cool things going on, why can’t we have [a solution].”

Harper also suggested that blockchain will eliminate the unnecessary “rework” to recreate paperwork or redo contracts “because you don’t have one version.”

Still, all three continually noted that blockchain development is still in the early stages. “We may be at step 3 of 100,” Chrystie said.

“We view blockchain as the Internet was in 1995,” Piwetz noted. “Back in 1995, you couldn’t imagine Uber or AirBnB … and 20 years from now, we’ll be amazed [at what blockchain delivers].”

“When you start reaching out to folks, you’ll find out that everyone is still very early in the game,” Harper added.

For now, early stage blockchain solutions may be as much about looking back as looking forward.

“We all spend a lot of time looking at what happened last week, last month, and I think that will be the early days of blockchain,” Chrystie told the audience. “And then we’ll move into the windshield” and start looking forward.

Companies should not wait for a total solution but should start looking for “small victories that can lead to larger victories,” Harper said.

“Don’t wait for best, do better,” Chrystie added.

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