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Blockchain & Finance - An Introduction for the CFO

Have you heard about blockchain? Even if you have not heard about blockchain, you would surely have heard about bitcoin.  Bitcoins are not blockchain but Bitcoins use the blockchain technology.

Why should a CFO concern about blockchain technology?

The blockchain technology is a big game changer.  It can be used to solve many business problems. While some industries are hugely impacted, others might have minor impact. Also, since the technology is evolving and maturing new impacts are getting discovered every day. Ignoring the technology could mean loss of competitive advantage, inefficient process impacting shareholder value. As the guardian of the shareholder value, it is of great importance to the CFO to understand the technology in general and impact on finance function in particular.

Before, we discuss how the blockchain impacts the finance function, let us understand what blockchain is, what its unique features are, what are its benefits.

What's the name?

The blockchain technology is also sometime referred to as DLT i.e. Distributed Ledger technology. While there are minor differences between the two, to keep things simple, we can assume both are the same.

What is blockchain / DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology)?

As the name indicates the technology uses blocks, chains, is distributed (i.e. decentralized) and ledgers (list of data). Basically DLT uses blocks to store data, the data is linked / chained to each other most likely using cryptology.  Apart from data storage / linkage, in DLT the complete data will be replicated (distributed). The data in the block chain is stored based on a 'consensus' rule and blockchain might also have smart contracts, which gets executed based on certain criteria.

Blockchain / DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology) - How does it help?

Because of the above characteristics, a blockchain can help businesses

  • Speed up business processes - transactions taking days can be done in seconds.

  • Reduce costs - as it will enable direct peer-to-peer interaction without the need for intermediaries.

  • Reduces risks - as the transactions are immutable and cannot be changed ones created

  • Enforces and builds trust - all data is transparent and additions are through a consensus mechanism.

Maybe the above discussions are very technical, let me describe a finance use case for better understanding of the technology and the benefits. 

Trade Finance - Use Case - Using Oracle Cloud, Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service

Trade finance is one of the areas where the blockchain technology is already in use. Let us imagine a typical bill discounting scenario.  The scenario will have the following participants - buyer (say 'ABC Electronics'), seller (say 'LG Electronics'), and financing bank (say HSBC).  Assume we are the buyers, using Oracle Cloud applications.

ABC Electronics buys the goods from the LG, on receipt of the goods and the invoice from the LG, the details are sent (physical copies of invoice) to the HSBC bank. HSBC bank verifies the data and then releases funds to the LG based on the due date.

Note the above process

  • Might take 3-5 days, probably more

  • The participants to the process, do not have a visibility of the status - Are the goods received by the ABC Electronics, is the invoice received by the ABC Electronics, has HSBC bank got the document, has HSBC bank verified the documents.

  • The invoices might get damaged, lost, tampered with - as they move between the different parties.

How can Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service help here-

With blockchain we can now build a solution whereby

  • The business process of sending goods, receiving goods, receiving invoices, sending invoices to the buyer, verification of receipts and invoices by the buyer, sending the invoice to the bank can be captured / shared  on the blockchain

  • The transactions on consensus gets added to the block chain and cannot be tampered with (immutable)

  • Additions to the blockchain can be done by automatic process / manual process. Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service offers REST API's to automatically integrate the Oracle cloud applications with Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service.

  • New data can be added based on an agreed consensus mechanism, which can be built using Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service.

  • Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service also offers a front end application, which help the participants to view the status of the transactions (data transparency)

  • The physical invoices need not be sent to the bank, the bank can directly connect via RESTAPI offered by Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service, to verify the invoices captured by the buyer. ( eases and speeds up the process)

  • With Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service, a smart contracts can be built to automatic transfer amounts to the seller, on due verification of the invoices (process automation)

Below is the pictorial representation of how data (block) gets added to each node after each business event based on consensus between all participants and the same view is available to all participants.

With the above solution

  • The data is visible to all participants and is consistent across all participants.

  • Physical invoices need not be sent to the bank.

  • The correct invoice details are confirmed by all parties and cannot be tampered with (immutable). The ability is only possible due to the use of blockchain technology.

  • Smart contracts executed automatically to initiate supplier payments.

  • The time to process the payment to the seller can be done in few minutes instead of days

Are there other Use cases - Impacts on finance function?

While there is a big impact on financial services industry, crypto-currencies, the focus of this note is to discuss the impact on the finance function perspective, at a more micro level.

There are many other use cases. As the technology matures, the way it is implemented is also evolving and new use cases are getting discovered.

Oracle (in Oracle Open World 2017) while releasing the Blockchain Cloud Service solution, have listed a good set of questions which will help you determine the possible use cases for blockchain. Businesses need to check on below to discover potential use cases

  • Is my business process pre-dominantly cross departmental / cross organizational? ( think of intercompany reconciliation, interparty reconciliations)

  • Is there a trust issue among transacting parties? ( think of trade finance scenarios)

  • Does it involve intermediaries, possibly corruptible?

  • Does it require period reconciliations? ( think of intercompany reconciliation, interparty reconciliations)

  • Is there a need to improve traceability or audit trails? (think of bank confirmation letters, third party balance confirmation letters needed by auditors)

  • Do we need real time visibility of the current state of transactions? (think of publishing reports to various stakeholders)

  • Can I improve the business process by automating certain steps in it? (think of automatic payment, based on inspections by a third party).

From above, we can see numerous opportunities for improving the finance functions. Let me try to list possible use cases by critical functions of finance.

S Num

Function

Sub-Function

Possible impacts

1

Financial Management

 

Ø  Strategic Planning

Ø  Annual Planning

Ø  Rolling Forecasting (Quarterly / Monthly)

Ø  Working Capital management

Ø  Forex management

An internal, permissioned blockchain can be built to get consensus on the plan, which is transparent to all participants and immutable.

 

A permissioned blockchain can be setup to speed up the funds disbursement process for trade finance

2

Financial Reporting and Analysis

 

Ø  Statutory and External Reporting (GAAP / IFRS / VAT etc.)

Ø  Management Reporting (Scorecard, Dashboard)

Ø  Strategic Finance (Scenario Planning. M&A)

Ø  Customer and Product Profitability Analysis

Ø  Balance Sheet, P&L ,Cashflows

A permissioned blockchain can be setup for secured communication of reports which is secured, tamperproof, quick to publish.

 

3

Governance, Risk and Compliance

 

Ø  Financial Policies & Procedures (Business Rules Management)

Ø  Tax Strategies and Compliance

Ø  Tax  Accounting

Ø  Audit, Controls and SOX Compliance

Ø  Enterprise and Operational Risk Management

Ø  System Security and Controls

Secured communication of reports to government authorities.

 

A permissioned blockchain can be built to get consensus on the account balances for audit purposes.

4

Finance Transactions and Operations

 

Ø  General Accounting

Ø  Managerial Accounting

Ø  Accounts Payable

Ø  Credit and Collections

A permissioned blockchain can be built which is transparent, immutable and consensus based to capture customer promises for cash collections.

5

Financial Consolidation

 

Ø  Period end Book closure (monthly, quarterly, yearly)

Ø  Currency translation and trial balances

Ø  INTRA and INTER company transaction accounting

Ø  System of records close ( COA,  GL, Sub-ledgers)

A permissioned blockchain can be built to share and agree on intercompany balances.

 

Any pitfalls? What should you check?

There are many potential uses of this technology. As the technology matures and more Proof of concept projects get executed, new use cases are getting discovered and old use cases are also getting dropped.  As per Gartner Hype cycle, blockchain technology has passed the 'Peak of Inflated expectation' phase and is likely to enter in the 'Trough of Disillusionment' phase as POC's start failing before entering the 'Slope of entitlement' phase.

Considering the hype, there is a risk of trying to force-fit blockchain in scenarios, where simpler, cheaper, faster options might work better. While blockchain are immutable, highly secure, there are few exceptions and special attention is needed to ensure the exceptions are understood and managed. The government regulation to manage blockchain contracts also need to be evolve. There are also concerns with data transparency, which might not always be a good thing.

Conclusion

Blockchain is a big game changer.  Its impact on the finance function is inevitable. As the technology matures, the technology will help the CFO automate, speedup processes, build internal controls even with third parties outside the organization.  The CFO organization should start discussion on discovering use cases. It is likely that new ways of doing processes might be developed, in a way never imagined before.

The intention of the article is to give an introduction to blockchain, the impact on finance function and how Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service can help with build a block chain quickly.


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