How to become a recognized expert in your chosen field — a detailed, concrete, and step-by-step guide.

A few people have asked me how to go about establishing themselves as recognized thought leaders in their respective fields. I make no particular claims to expertise in this regard, but it is something I have thought about consciously while trying to do the same thing for myself, which means that even if I’m not an expert, I can give advice based on my experience.

Lots of people have written on this topic generally, and some have done a very good job of it. Therefore, for me to add value and not just repeat what has already been said, my advice needs to be concrete and specific. And that in turn means this article will be rather long; my apologies for that, but there is a lot of ground to cover, and I expect it will be more useful as a single guide than a series of posts. Let me know if you find it useful.

0.     Define your brand

Ultimately, all of this is about building a personal brand: a reputation for which you would like to become known. The most important advice I can give – far more important than any specific instruction below, is to be in control of your brand. A great way to understand this is to look at the world of celebrities; it is very easy to distinguish between celebrities who are in control of their brands (e.g. Beyoncé or Madonna), and who has relinquished control of their brand to a media industry whose priority is making money, more often than not at the expense of the celebrities themselves (e.g. Britney Spears or until recently, Justin Bieber). But you don’t have to be a celebrity to make this kind of decision; you can control your brand, or let it control you.

Be clear and specific about what your personal brand is about. Becoming an expert takes time and energy, and most of us will have less than 3-4 hours a week to invest in it, so it’s critical to make that time count. The best way to do this is to tightly manage the subject areas you choose to build expertise in. That’s not to say the focus can’t change; given the pace of innovation in just about everything these days, such change should be expected if not outright required. But plan for it, be conscious of it, and make sure both your research and your writing stays on topic.

1.     Set up a business email account

  • Make sure you have a business account that is separate from your regular personal account. There are several reasons to do this, but for me the biggest reason is the mental separation; when I compose an email, even on my phone, the act of choosing which account to send it from reminds me to be “on brand” and think about how my words will impact the reputation I am trying to create.
  • A free email account like Gmail is fine for this, though setting up your own domain is really inexpensive. The domain registrar I use, Gandi, charges about $15 a year, and that includes email hosting for 5 separate addresses.
  • If you already have a business email account from your employment, consider whether or not it makes sense to use it as the account for your personal brand. If you run your own company or hold a visible leadership position in the company you work for, this is a no-brainer, but there may also be instances where it doesn’t make sense; you be the judge.

2.     Make sure your LinkedIn profile reflects your brand

  • If someone you don’t already know sees something you’ve written that they like, 90% of the time the first thing they will do is check out your LinkedIn profile, and in many cases they will also use LinkedIn to message you directly. So, LinkedIn is probably the single most important place where you want your brand identity to come across.
  • As with most other web interactions, people tend to be allergic to scrolling down, so the items on the top of your LinkedIn profile is the most important when it comes to setting your brand.
  • Your background photo is the first thing the eye will see when someone comes to your LinkedIn page, and for most profiles, this is a lost opportunity to send a message. The background photo does not need to be a picture of you; it can be a photo relevant to your chosen areas of expertise. To use my own profile as a case study, my current background photo superimposes the logo of my consulting company over a 1940’s era globe. The logo is there to get my company’s name into people’s mind, the globe is to underscore the fact that I have delivered work in over 40 countries around the world, the globe is focused on Africa to reflect my experience working in developing countries and my passion for financial inclusion, and the globe is an older one to reflect a sense of stability as well as the fact that I tend to incorporate the lessons of history into my writing.
  • The next item that appears is your photo. Common sense prevails here; the photo should look professional, and if possible to present you in a context or background suitable for the reputation you are trying to create. If possible, arrange to have someone photograph you actively doing your job; that dynamism will show, and will make your photo far more engaging than a static professional portrait. My photo, for instance, shows me speaking at a conference. I am actively engaged in sharing my expertise, and I think this shows. Also, the translation device in my lapel pocket is another subtle cue to my international experience.
  • The third thing that appears is your profile description. Roughly a paragraph of it shows; users will have to click to see the rest; make sure the visible paragraph talks about your brand. You don’t have to summarize your work experience; people can see that further down in your profile if they’re interested. Sum up in a few sentences what you aspire to offer the world. And don’t worry if you don’t think you actually live up to those aspirations yet – we all feel that way (Google the term “impostor syndrome” sometime).
  • The final section likely to appear on your profile without scrolling down is a list of your most recent posts and articles. This is what you’ll be working on in some of the further steps in your guide, so don’t worry too much about it for the moment.

3.     Set up a Twitter profile for your brand

  • I have a confession to make: I don’t really get Twitter. As a reader, I find RSS and LinkedIn news feeds to be much better sources of content (more on that below), and as a writer I am far too verbose to do a good job of getting my point across in 140 characters. But my own inadequacies don’t change the fact that Twitter is a really important channel; many people disagree with me about Twitter, and say that it’s an incredibly useful way of harvesting content. You want to reach the people who like Twitter as well as the people who don’t.
  • For similar reasons, the mere fact of having a well-populated Twitter feed will also enhance your reputation in the eyes of many.
  • The final reason to include Twitter in your thought leadership plan is that it’s incredibly inexpensive in terms of your time to do so. Using a free tool called IFTTT, you can set things up so that every time you blog or post something on LinkedIn, it is automatically posted to your Twitter feed as well. So with almost no extra work, you can have a fully realized presence on another distribution channel for your personal brand. Kind of a no-brainer really.
  • For those of you who do get Twitter and already use it, I strongly advise setting up a separate Twitter feed, linked to your business email address, so you don’t dilute your brand with other topics you currently like tweeting about.

4.     Become current on your chosen area of expertise

  • The important thing here is to be ruthless in your focus, so make sure you are focusing exclusively on things related to your chosen areas of expertise. Clickbait is your deadly enemy in this endeavour; build up the self-discipline to resist it (if you are at all like me, this is easier said than done). And if you find yourself continually drawn to a topic that is not on that list, perhaps it is time to revise your brand accordingly.
  • In terms of where to look for content, everybody has different ways of acquiring knowledge that works well for them; there is no one right answer. My wife is an avid radio listener, I have a friend in Indonesia who is a voracious consumer of podcasts, whereas I prefer reading. The concrete advice I present here is what works for me; you will probably need to alter it to reflect your own way of acquiring knowledge. I use two primary channels for acquiring my expertise: the LinkedIn news feed and RSS.
  • The LinkedIn news feed is useful for two reasons. First, since you tend to make connections with people you actively work with, the likelihood that you will see things in your feed that are directly relevant is pretty good. Second, when you do see something notable, you can directly reach out to a) find out more, and b) establish a new networking connection that may be useful. Once again though, beware the clickbait. LinkedIn clickbait looks very different from Facebook clickbait, but it’s still clickbait. Great interview questions, generic advice on how to handle difficult colleagues, or exposes on the personality quirks of celebrity CEO’s are unlikely to be worth the time spent reading them; learn to ignore the urge.
  • RSS is fantastic. For those of you unfamiliar, it stands for Really Simple Syndication, and is quite old tech, having been first developed in the 90’s. RSS is a protocol that monitors a list of websites you specify for new content; anything new published on your list of sites is automatically harvested for you and presented in a single easy-to-manage list. The way to use RSS is to use an app known as an RSS Reader. There are literally hundreds of these and they are all similar in terms of how they work: you input the URL’s for the sites or blogs you want to follow. A lot of sites will actually have a specific URL that is tailored for RSS feeds — look for the orange RSS icon pictured here — but a regular URL will usually work fine as well.
  • The RSS reader I use is a very popular one called Feedly. I like it because the lists are easy to manage and because it lets me have a single list that I can use across devices, so an article I already read on my phone is already marked as read when I next look on my tablet or PC. But as I said, there are many readers out there, and a lot of them are free. Choose one that works for you.
  • As for which sites to include in your RSS feed, once again, be ruthless about choosing sites that are directly relevant to your chosen areas of expertise. If you follow too many sites, your reader will show so many articles that you will always feel behind your game, and eventually you will decommit and stop reading it. Try to define a list so that you can complete a top-level scan of the headlines in less than 10 minutes, something you can easily manage to fit into your daily routine. If you have time, you can deep-dive on the articles you truly want to read (for me that is usually 3-4 articles a day), or you can star them to read later when you have time.

5.     Build a visible point of view

  • Once you’ve been doing step 4 for a couple weeks, you will almost certainly find yourself having opinions about what you’ve read. Some trends will catch your interest, while others may strike you as bogus. As soon as you feel you’ve seen enough, start saying so. And remember that articles that annoy or bore you can be just as much a source for your comment as an article you like. That being said, since the goal is to build a positive reputation it is better in such cases to couch your opinion as an elaboration of the work they author has already done (in the case where you think they’ve gotten something wrong), or a suggestion for how the author can get more engagement for their message (in the case where the author’s views struck you as valid but boring).
  • Start building this base on of posts on LinkedIn rather than on your own blog, or at least mirror them so your posts appear in both places. Your goal is a wide viewing base, and since you are just getting started on your journey, most people don’t know your blog exists. If you do want to mirror LinkedIn with your own blog, once again you can use IFTTT to automate this for you, so there is no extra work involved. I mirror my posts on my own website:
  •  LinkedIn draws a distinction between posts, which tend to be short comments on something somebody else has published (usually linked to directly in the post), and articles, which tend to be longer and usually contain more original thinking on the part of the author, or perhaps a synthesis of thinking from several different sites instead of a post, which tends to concentrate on a single entry on another site. I find this distinction useful.
  • So when to write an article vs a post?  Articles should be the refined essence of your brand, and should have a higher quality gate in your mind than posts; you need articles to make a more lasting impression. Also, since they tend to be longer and require more original thought than posts, you will come up with valid article topics less often. I expect to write no more than 8-10 articles this entire year, while on some days when there is lots of interesting stuff in my RSS feed, I could post more than once a day (though I try to avoid that, as people will only generally see your most recent post on their RSS reader or LinkedIn feed).
  • The last thing I would say about articles vs posts is that articles should be original. For example, one of my areas of expertise is blockchain, and blockchain is squarely in the worst part of the hype curve. Thousands of people are writing about blockchain right now. Lots of what gets written is rubbish, but the people who are writing useful content are often already doing a better job of articulating their message than I could. I only write an article when I feel I have something useful to say that no one else is already saying.

6.     Make your point of view more accessible

  • Once you have a point of view that people can see, it is time to start getting more people to see it. The first step in this process is perhaps the hardest: wait. People already in your network or LinkedIn connections list are presumably there because they already know who you are or what you can do. Anyone who encounters you for the first time via your LinkedIn profile or Twitter stream will form their first impression based on what they see, and you don’t want to come off like a neophyte. How much content is enough? Well, one easy rule to follow is one I’ve already mentioned: people are allergic to scroll bars. If you have enough posts or tweets to fill one complete page, that is probably enough to start thinking about expanding your network.
  • Many people hate networking. I used to be one of them, and sometimes I still find it hard to do. But over time I’ve become convinced that the main reason that people hate networking is that they are looking at it wrong. Most people seem to depict networking as an activity in which you go from one stranger to the next to either a) pitch them on a business idea you have, or b) figure out how they can help you achieve your ambitions. The result is that you usually end up feeling slimy or manipulative, and are resultantly uncomfortable, and therefore unsuccessful, when trying to do network effectively. But I have found that effective networking is almost completely the opposite: instead of figuring out how someone can help you reach your goals, effective networking is actually about figuring out how you can help someone reach their goals. I like solving problems. I like helping people. The moment I figured out that networking is nothing more than helping people solve their problems, I started enjoying it. And the moment I got to the point that one of the main ways in which I was helping people solve their problems was by connecting them to someone else who had the necessary skills or experience to help them, I was forced to realize that networking was something I could both enjoy and be successful at. Keep this perspective, and you might end up feeling the same.
  • In terms of concrete advice, a great way to start is with your posts. If you write an article about something you’ve read, particularly if your comments are positive, reach out to the author and make them aware that you’ve written about them. Most people are very happy to publicize comments that praise their work – this is where the “helping people achieve their goals” part of networking comes in. And once you’ve made a connection on LinkedIn with someone, their posts and articles will start appearing regularly in your feed, giving you more good content to look at. And just as important, your posts and articles will now start appearing in their feed; they may choose to share a post or article about your work to their network, at which point you will start being read by people who have no prior connection to you, and that is where magic starts happening.

7.     Engage with the media industry

  • Growing your network as described above is an organic process, and unless you get a lucky strike and one of your posts goes viral, your reach will tend to grow in a slow and linear way. To reach a larger audience, you will need to find ways to start appearing in media. To many people, including me, it felt like there was some huge invisible barrier between myself and the sort of people who get quoted in news articles. I have since discovered that barrier is largely illusory, and one of the reasons why is a tool called HARO that my good friend Linda Coss (who helps small and medium businesses with digital marketing for a living) told me about. HARO is a tool that reporters and journalists use when they need to consult experts for articles they are writing. The tool takes the form of signing up for an email that gets out three times a day, Monday through Friday. The email is a list some 40 to 80 questions, each submitted by a different reporter, looking for someone to quote in an article they are writing. The questions cover a bewildering range of topics and are broadly grouped into a set of categories (business, technology, healthcare, etc). Each entry has the question they want asked and an email to send your response to. You email your answer, and if the journalist picks your answer from the submissions they receive, you end up being quoted.
  • Some tips for dealing with HARO. Reporters are always under deadline, and may have to sort through dozens of responses to their query to pick yours. So to maximize the odds of getting your response selected, make it fast and easily consumable. If you can’t respond within a few hours, it may be wise to pass, and wait for a good question that arrives at a time when you have the bandwidth to answer quickly. And the more able you are to render your answer in a few elegantly concise sentences, the easier it will be for the journalist to use your answer
  • Don’t be shy of answering a question just because you don’t have the answer immediately to hand. You already know something about the field; after all, you did choose it as your area of expertise. And even if you form your answer simply by googling a bit, your google searches are going to be well informed by what you already know; it would be a mistake to assume that the journalist could find the answer as easily or quickly as you could. And even if they could do so, they may not have the time; that is probably why they put the query on HARO in the first place.
  • Last piece of advice is the same is the first: keep your brand in mind. You will find tons of questions you could successfully answer that are on subjects outside your branded area of expertise. Don’t. Even if you end up being selected, you will end up diluting your brand.

So, there it is. How to become an expert in one overlong article. Let me know if it helps, or if there is anything you want more details on. Most of the guidance revolves around being clear about the reputation you want to create, and taking care both your content and your investment of time and energy are efficiently dedicated to that goal. This requires a certain level of focus, which is sometimes energizing but other times exhausting. My final piece of advice is to reserve for yourself a forum in which you don’t have to worry about being on brand. Someplace where you can rant about politics, indulge in paroxysms of joy over your favorite singer/actor/athlete, or post videos of unspeakably cute pets. Make sure you have a space where you can safely be off brand. There will be days when you need it.


Highlights from the G20


In 2015, I had the opportunity to address the G20 at their SME Finance Forum.  I spoke on the potential of machine learning to accelerate financial inclusion.  It was an impressive group of speakers, and being invited to take part was a huge honor.

While constructing this website I came across a short video summary of the session.  Boiling 2 full days down to a 3 minute video wasn’t easy, but the videographers nevertheless managed to capture a number of the key points that came out of the gathering.

FYI, you can see a couple brief snippets from my talk starting at about 1:50


Mobile devices and unintended segmentation bias

Most of my articles, in fact most of my ideas in general, come from something I read that keeps pinging my consciousness for several days after first reading it, and today’s article is no exception. The article in this case is entitled “What Does Effective Human Touch Look Like in Kenya’s Digital Age?”; it’s written by Alexis Beggs Olsen and gives the account of the work she did in Kenya for her fellowship at the Center for Financial Inclusion.

The research Alexis and her colleagues are doing focuses on the critical role that human interaction still plays in financial services, even when the products have purely digital distribution channels. Her insights are relevant, directly applicable for mature economies as well as developing ones, and resonate well from the two years I spent working in Kenya myself, and I heartily recommend giving it a read here.

But what really kept nagging me was the opening sentence of the second paragraph:

But what about financial inclusion, where digital interfaces aren’t a luxury, but rather a model that drives financial inclusion, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa?

Alexis is focusing on how to make financial services more available, more effecting, and easier to use to people who have traditionally had very little access to them, but there is something in this question that penetrates well beyond the domain of financial inclusion: it highlights a pattern of bias, an underlying assumption that in many cases just isn’t true. Namely, that despite the origins of smartphones as a tool marketed to the affluent, the educated, and the wired, mobile devices have also become a lifeline to people living in poverty, providing access not only to capital, but education, news, government services, even accurate and timely weather forecasts.

This bias extends well beyond the marketing world of personas, customer journeys, and segmentation maps.  A couple years ago, when Syrian refugees started arriving in droves at what became known as the Calais Jungle, I recall the howls of outrage when photos were shown of refugees sitting in the dirt, chatting on smartphones with their families back home. “They aren’t really poor, they still have mobile phones!”, many people asked, completely oblivious to the fact that in the modern edition of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, most people would rate digital access at nearly the same level as food, clothing, and shelter. And as the experience of the Calais Jungle shows, if anything this skew is probably stronger in the poor than it is in the rich.

It is easy to understand why we acquired this bias. The smartphone, and the iPhone in particular, got its start as a high-end, high-margin device marketed very clearly and explicitly to affluent, well-educated, digitally savvy consumers living primarily in mature economies. And ten years since the advent of the iPhone, the latest and most capable mobile device is still the sine qua non of conspicuous consumption to many people, myself included.

Most of us realize, on an intellectual level at least, that things have moved on quite a bit since then; marketers and NGO’s alike know that digital channels are the best way of reaching the widest number of people. But subconsciously this bias still operates, and shows up in all sorts of unanticipated ways in how we design and deliver solutions to problems, both commercial and societal. Unless we can root out and challenge this unwritten assumption, it doesn’t matter whether our goal is to help people or make money: we will be missing out on an opportunity to make a difference.

#financialinclusion #mobiledevices #segmentation #customerjourney

Blockchain, Fake News, and Private Money: Cryptocurrency in historical context

Yesterday, Apple announced that one of the features to be included in iOS 11 was the ability to use their iMessage protocol to send money.

Author Daniel Priestley commented about this on his Facebook page; here is an excerpt:

Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google will issue the money of the 21st century. The Apple Dollar will float against the Amazon Coin the same way the USD exchanges to the GBP. As the world becomes less and less about geography, currency will be issued by the tech giants rather than countries.

It’s a provocative statement, and I’m not sure I am as willing to go so far as Priestly does; Apple is not actually issuing its own currency. Yet Bitcoin, Ether, Ripple, and their like are indeed currencies, existing apart from any sovereign fiat currency, so perhaps in some ways Priestley’s vision is not that far off the mark. But something about the way that Priestley presented this as a 21st century phenomenon got me thinking about historical context, and the more I think about it, the more I am coming to realize that like many recent tech revolutions, cryptocurrency is in many ways not so much something new as a technology-enabled return to something quite old. In this case, that old something is private money.

Most people living on the planet today take for granted the idea that currency is something issued exclusively by sovereign governments, but this has not always been the case. In fact, paper currency for most of its history was issued far more regularly by private banks than by sovereign governments. That is why they are still called banknotes. Some governments did experiment with issuing their own banknotes, Napoleon, for instance. But since its inception in Song Dynasty China in the 11th century, paper currency was mostly issued by banks.

For most of the intervening years, only a few well-established and respected banks issued notes for public circulation. But in 19th century America, the issuance of banknotes exploded. During the height of what is now called the Free Banking Era, almost anyone could issue currency, and many did. Not just banks, but retailers, restaurants, even individuals. There were literally thousands of different currencies in active trade. Nominally, a dollar was a dollar regardless of who issued the note, but in reality the value of each private currency depended wholly on the fortunes of the issuer. If the issuer went bankrupt, as many did, their currency became worthless.  So being a savvy trader in the free banking era meant keeping careful track of the current and projected future value of the currency you held or the currency you traded in.

Eventually, too many people got burned and the government felt compelled to intervene;  the result was the set of federal reserve notes we still recognize today as legal tender. The rest of the world followed suit, and by the start of World War I, almost all currency in circulation was government issued (though some private money survives to this day: the currencies of both Scotland and Hong Kong, for instance, are still issued by banks rather than by the government).

The result of this change was that people no longer had to worry about the provenance of their money. It’s purchasing power might be subject to inflationary pressure, and its value might ebb and flow when compared to the currency of other countries, but you no longer had to worry about whether one dollar was as good as the next.

Until now.

With the rise of bitcoin, ether, ripple, and other altcoins and cryptocurrencies, the one-century or so historical aberration during which we could take the provenance of our money for granted has come to an end. As traders, bankers, and consultants, we once again need to think not only about the most suitable financial product for a given use case, but also the most suitable store of value.  It is in many ways similar to the profusion of fake news. For a brief period in history, we were able to take the provenance of our news for granted, but recent events have caused us to revert to the historical norm of needing to examine the provenance of our news critically.

Why does all this matter, and what lessons can we who work with blockchain, cryptocurrency, or indeed journalism, consider as we plan our future? The Free Banking Era came to an end because it presented enormous opportunities for both arbitrage and fraud, and because those opportunities were enthusiastically exploited by the speculators and criminals of the day. By studying this history carefully, those of us who believe in the transformational benefits that cryptocurrencies and distributed ledgers may be able to mitigate the worst of these excesses, and perhaps avoid the loss of innovation that would inevitably follow from a massive government intervention similar to the one that brought the Free Banking Era to an end. At the very least, if we are able to avoid at least some of the mistakes of the past, we may earn for ourselves the opportunity to make entirely new mistakes. Surely that is worth something.


  • The photo from the Apple developers’ conference came from The Verge; the original article is here
  • The Daniel Priestley quote came from his Facebook page, which can be found here
  • The banknote images came from the Wikimedia commons

A Coming Revolution in Physical Addresses

There was an announcement recently that, while it doesn’t have world-spanning impact on its own, may herald what will be a global change in how physical locations addressed in the world: Cote d’Ivoire announced that it would be adopting what3words as its official postal address scheme, making it the second country to do so (Mongolia was the first).

what3words is a physical addressing scheme that divides the globe into tiles of three square meters and assigns a unique 3-word address to each. The words are regular English words; homophones and offensive terms are filtered out, and there is a 40,000 word master list from which the 57 trillion tiles that make up the earth’s surface (ocean areas included). Essentially what3words has assigned a set of mnemonics to numerical GPS coordinates, much in the same way as DNS assigns mnemonic domain names to numeric IP addresses.

To understand the amazing potential of what this can accomplish, let’s look at the first national adopter of what3words, the Mongolian postal service. Much of Mongolia is open steppe, an endless horizon of rolling grassland for which words cannot convey the sense of immensity, and much of the population still lives out on the steppe — I had the privilege of visiting in 2006; the vista cannot possibly be captured on film and will remain with me for the rest of my life. Getting from one place to the next is not difficult, either by vehicle or, more traditionally, on horseback; so much so that the network of roads that developed in many countries over the prior two centuries was neither required nor particularly desired. Imagine the challenge, then, of trying to send a parcel to someone living on the steppe. But with a what3words address, everyone living on the steppe is now easily locatable, allowing them to communicate by post, participate in e-commerce, and start businesses that, prior to this innovation, would have been logistically impossible for them to operate from their homes.what3words started up in 2013, and a number of travel concerns and NGO’s have adopted their addresses, but, it was the Mongolian announcement last year that first made me aware of them, and I have been watching them since. The potential of this solution is enormous, for global logistics, for financial inclusion, and even for more diverse and trivial use cases like finding friends and family at large music festivals, theme parks, or sporting events. Most startups fail though, and while the Mongolian use case was a key success (and an obvious win given Mongolia’s unique geographical challenges), to me one of the key indicators that what3names might actually succeed was adoption by a second, preferably African, country. If the Cote d’Ivoire adoption succeeds, as I believe it is likely to, I could see any number of African countries with similar challenges (e.g. entire villages with no postal address) adopting it in rapid succession.

If this takes off, the impact cannot be overstated. Everything else we are trying to accomplish in fighting poverty and improving the human condition – financial inclusion, educational access, universal broadband, targeted humanitarian aid — will become that much easier.

Oh, and if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of belong.enjoyable.delay, do feel free to drop by for a cup of coffee and a chat.


The CNN article on Cote d’Ivoire that appeared today:

You can visit the what3words site itself and find your own three word address at:

The mobile app (free) is available on from the Apple App Store and Google Play:

Blockchain for Social Good

A great deal is being written lately about blockchain and while only a few of the world’s current 10,000+ blockchain-based start-ups are likely to succeed, hype exists for a reason, and the core truth remains that distributed ledger technology has the potential, and probably the destiny, to completely transform how the world records and shares business transactions. Most cited use cases for blockchain come from the financial services industry, but blockchain is beginning to be taken seriously by other sectors as well, such as energy, manufacturing, and especially health care.

We could brainstorm some good use cases where the application of blockchain would yield transformational results in socially oriented Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) however by approaching these challenges in a more structured way, and starting with the more abstract changes that distributed ledgers bring, we can think more systemically; this will improve our ability to use blockchain to creatively and effectively address larger universe of problems.

Systemic Transformations From Blockchain Adoption


When multiple parties in a business network share a single ledger of transactions, the amount of time spent establishing and verifying the details of any transaction can be significantly reduced. In a social context, this would allow charities and NGO’s to deliver goods and services with much greater efficiency.


Getting assistance to the right recipient is one of the biggest challenges of any social enterprise; this can be as true in mature economies as it is in the developing world. A framework for identity management that was flexible enough to work across different countries, processes, and technologies would not only reduce misdirected aid, it would significantly reduce the percentage of budget a charity or NGO would need to spend on compliance.


From blood donations to organ transplants to diamonds to industrial waste, the ability of a social enterprise to accurately identify the source and chain of custody of key material goods is critical. Blockchain by its very nature provides an immutable chain of provenance. By immutable we mean that once a transaction is recorded it cannot be deleted or denied – its record is unchangeable.


By some estimates, as little as 40% of the world’s material aid reaches its intended destination. In some parts of the world, the percentage of monetary aid reaching its final destination is far lower than this. Through the application of the consensus, identity, and provenance capabilities that are native to distributed ledger technology, social enterprises can envision a new operating model. Not only one in which its ability to operate with transparency and efficiency is transformed, but one in which that transparency and efficiency are directly visible in real time to its managers, regulators, donors, and above all, its beneficiaries.

Real-world Use Cases

With a solid understanding of these systemic transformations, it becomes a fairly straightforward exercise to envision very concrete, KPI-driven business cases for a wide variety of social goals. Some quick examples:

  • Tracking the flow of refugees through conflict zones and porous borders, to ensure they receive the humanitarian aid they need. Also, ensuring that cohesive medical histories follow such refugees in their migrations
  • Identifying sources, inventories, and locations of tainted foods, faulty components, or toxic waste
  • Ensuring that material aid such as food or clothing reaches the intended recipients
  • Real-time tracking of blood or organ donations

In addition to these direct examples, social enterprises would also stand to benefit from adopting some of the core financial services use cases for blockchain:

  • Cheaper and faster currency remittance
  • More efficient trade finance, letters of credit, and logistics
  • Innovations in funding and business models

Next Steps

A distributed ledger, by its very definition, must exist across a network of enterprises and individuals for any of these benefits to be realized which requires that those enterprises and individuals agree on a common standard or protocol for sharing data and modelling transactions. In most cases, the organizational challenges of agreeing such a protocol within a business network will dwarf the technological challenges of implementing that protocol on blockchain. As a result the social enterprises who will be the most likely to succeed with blockchain will be the ones who:

  • Are the first to agree a protocol with their networks of donors, beneficiaries, and logistics providers
  • Define those protocols, and the technology needed to use them, in a way that makes it easy and inexpensive for other participants in the business network to adopt them
  • Have the focus and influence necessary to obtain approval for their transformed business models from the relevant regulators

Note: This article first appeared as a blog post from Russam GMS, an an excellent interim executive sourcing firm. I would highly recommend following their Insights section, which features updates from some very interesting senior business leaders. You can link to their insights page at: