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Q&A: Grainne McNamara of PwC explains how treasurers approach blockchain

  • By Ira Apfel
  • Published: 10/6/2017

Comm-16-Banner-blockchain-pghdrIn this interview with AFP 2017 speaker Grainne McNamara, the PwC principal explains how treasury and finance executives are exploring how to use blockchain.

Ira Apfel: When treasury and finance executives approach you about blockchain, where are they in the decision-making process? Are they ready to leverage blockchain, or are they looking for education?

Grainne McNamara
: Clients definitely call us to ask us to explain the technology. We’ve hosted a lot of sessions with leadership at many of our clients’ offices explaining what is blockchain and where does it fit in their digital transformation toolkit, what’s unique about it, what’s new? They definitely have concerns about disruption. This technology, particularly as it relates to financial services, can be potentially very disruptive to, for example, payment providers, providers of trade finance, and so on. Our clients ask us about that. They’re anxious to understand the technology, and to prevent themselves from falling behind.

Ira Apfel: Who makes the initial contact?

Grainne McNamara: Sometimes we’re approached by the CIO and it’s a conversation with the IT organization about innovation, digital strategy, data strategy, and so on, but sometimes it’s the CFO calling us and asking us to explain how supply chain or trade finance or payments or inter-company flows might be facilitated with technology like this. We had one particular client that’s a consumer products company that we audit. Their CFO had called us up because he was aware that another large retail outlet that he was suppling to was using this technology to manage their supply chain and wanted to understand what the implications of that would be for his own organization.

Ira Apfel: Do any of your clients actually use blockchain?

Grainne McNamara: We do have clients that are further along in absorption and adoption of this technology. Then, we have actually helped them to implement the technology. We ourselves have blockchain labs and have been doing this for a number of years. We’ve built a number of applications on top of blockchain technologies ourselves. We facilitated our client’s implementing technologies that are provided by some of the large technology players in the market.

Ira Apfel: How receptive are financial services firms to blockchain?

Grainne McNamara: You know, that’s a really great question, and we actually surveyed recently all of our financial services clients. We talked to 1,300 clients across the sector and asked them a number of things about disruptive technology and fintech, and we asked about blockchain. What we have found is that those clients are really embracing disruptive technology now as part of the business. They have a strategy of collaboration with disruptors. They have their own innovation labs where they’re bringing in startups, they’re bringing in that R&D coming from the outside from the organization. They’re working with that community to educate them. This is much more the lip service.

Ira Apfel: How can treasurers be sure which new technology will succeed?

Grainne McNamara: Everybody asks us about future proofing. They ask us, “If I pick a particular fabric so to speak what will happen if that’s not the fabric that wins? What I think is important here is that again, people choose their investment appropriately. This is still about learning. This is about being on that journey of understanding what’s out there and what’s possible. We encourage our clients to design what we call a minimum viable product so that they can test the technology without committing to a very large investment. What I expect will happen is that we will become a little bit extracted from some of this complexity as a corporate client. People will become less concerned about the rails underneath. That’s definitely my prediction.                  

Ira Apfel: Do you worry that you’ll lose your job to technology?

Grainne McNamara: No. In fact, I think quite the opposite. I think that there is now tremendous demand for people to keep up with what’s happening in the area of digital transformation. What I see happening is really a collapse of process and technology. I think that the skill set of the future, I think, is about understanding this technology, understanding how it’s applied in agile delivery to solve business problems more quickly. I think people need to understand how to do creative design with some of these new technologies. A lot of that is about understanding of the current process. When I think about my background in having spent over 20 years inside large banks and I think about what I’m doing now I actually feel really great about the opportunity for the future.

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