University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 92: Mary Lacity

Mary Lacity is a Walton College of Business Professor of Information Systems and Director of the Blockchain Center of Excellence. Read More

More About This Episode

Mary Lacity is a Walton College of Business Professor of Information Systems and Director of the Blockchain Center of Excellence. Mary serves as an editorial board member for The British Blockchain Association and a senior editor for MIS Quarterly Executive. Mary's passion is educating and challenging students and professionals about emerging blockchain technology. She is also the 6th most cited researcher at the University of Arkansas. Join us to hear about Mary’s most recent book, Blockchain Foundations: For the Internet of Value.

Purchase Mary's book.


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Episode Transcript

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00:07 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today Mary Lacity. She's the Walton professor of Information Systems in the Sam M. Walton of Business and the director of the Blockchain Center of Excellence. And she is a prolific researcher, she ranks sixth in the University of Arkansas for most citations, not just in the business school, but in the entire university. In fact, one of her articles that was published in MIS Quarterly, which is the top journal in the field has been cited 1300 times. She has 120 papers that have been cited at least 10 times. On top of all that, today, we're talking about her book, her newest book, which is called Blockchain Foundations, and the subtitle is For the Internet of Value. And what's remarkable about this is this is her 30th book. And this isn't a short book, this is 468 pages. And it's got a lot of great content. Mary had done a lot of research on robotic process automation and service automation and these kinds of topics. And she's also become an expert in blockchain. So Mary, thank you for taking time to visit with me today about your new book.

01:54 Mary Lacity: Thank you, Matt. I appreciate the opportunity to have a conversation with you about this.

02:00 Matt Waller: I wanted to mention too that she waves all royalty fees for this book. And this is published by Epic Books, which is an imprint of the University of Arkansas Press, so she's really making a contribution to the university, in the college. So thank you for doing that, Mary.

02:21 Mary Lacity: Well Matt, I think it's very important because we really are going to use this book in our classroom. And I didn't wanna charge students for a book that I wrote, so I wanted to keep the price low and make it accessible.

02:32 Matt Waller: So the title of your book is Blockchain Foundations and the subtitle is For the Internet of Value. Where did you get that title?

02:41 Mary Lacity: So I was listening to people like Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM at the time, and reading Don and Alex Tapscott book, Blockchain Revolution. And they provide this image of moving us from an internet of information, which is what we have today, to an internet of value. So what the heck does that mean? Well, an internet of information works by seamlessly sending copies of information to each other. So Matt, when you send out an email, you're sending out a copy of an email. But an internet of value, we're gonna seamlessly exchange value, but we can't send copies. So if you send me a dollar, you're not allowed to keep that, the copy of that dollar. So blockchains are the foundations that help us pivot to an internet of information to an internet of value.

03:30 Matt Waller: Interesting. Before I started reading your book, one of the things I noticed real quickly was that you talk about applications and financial services, supply chain, energy and credentials. And I wanna talk about that in a little bit, but there are a lot of other potential applications as you mentioned even in your book. But those are four areas that you really focused on, so I would think that would say something about who your audience is. And so I'd like to ask you, who is the primary audience?

04:04 Mary Lacity: Okay, I see two primary audiences for this book, students and professionals who wanna go on a learning journey. So there's a lot of blockchain books out there. If you google that on or go to amazon.com, you'll see a lot. But they're all from a particular perspective, so it might assume you're a software developer or might assume you're a CEO and just need a cursory look. I wanted to take people on that journey of really understanding what is the vision for the internet of value, peeking under the hood, understanding how these blockchain technologies work, and then looking about how they're being applied in traditional enterprises, as well as in startups. And so you mentioned a couple of the industries, well, those are really the industries that are the early adopters; financial services, supply chain, energy. Credentialing is also another big and important area for an internet of value.

05:02 Matt Waller: Well, just a couple of years ago, you published a book called Blockchains for Business.

05:08 Mary Lacity: Yes.

05:10 Matt Waller: So is this an update of that book or... I know it's not actually. But what's changed, what made you decide to write another book in just two years?

05:18 Mary Lacity: Okay. Well, it is a significant update. But really the big difference was in 2018, when you were talking about enterprise adoption of blockchain technologies, at that time, it was just really aspirational. So there was a lot of activity going on. There was a lot of proof of concepts, people developing thing in sandbox environments. And really what happened in 2019-2020 is we started to have the first generation of what I call blockchain-enabled solutions for ecosystem level challenges. So that's really what the book focuses on, it's now real for early adopters.

05:55 Matt Waller: Okay, before we go any further, and I know you've done this for me before, but for our audience... Now there's a lot of people that are interested in blockchain, could you give us a definition? What is blockchain?

06:09 Mary Lacity: You know what, I have to tell you Matt, I hate that question and I'm gonna tell you why. Because it puts the technology first and so we're business people. So what I like to talk about is what does blockchain technologies enable. And really what it enables is the sharing of data and the exchange of value at an ecosystem level. So for me, the best way to think of an analogy of what it enables is right now, most organizations keep all other systems of record inside the boundaries of the firm. So they might have Oracle or SAP, and every single company has their own information systems. What a blockchain solution enables is a shared application across ecosystem partners, and the idea of the unlocking of value is lower transaction costs, better IT resiliency, faster settlement times, shared views of what happened in the events between these partners, so we don't a have to reconcile event. So I like focusing on the value and then when you wanna learn about what the technologies are, then you could focus on consensus algorithms and cryptography and smart contracts and digital ledgers. But if you talk about that stuff first, I think it turns business people off. They think of it as hype and it's really just a part of an overall solution.

07:29 Matt Waller: Mary, I think that's such a good point. Because when we think about the world wide web, today if you were to ask someone about what is the world wide web, they wouldn't start talking about the technical stuff. Back when the world wide web first came out in the '90s, people did sometimes. If you ask them, "What is the world wide web?" they'd start talking about these technical details and no one had any idea what it really was. And it's interesting too to think about during the.com boom. Everyone was getting involved in using the world wide web for selling things. For example, Amazon started selling books, but they were using it for all kinds of things and there were a lot of B2B applications too. And when software as a service first started back then, they didn't call it software as a service. They called it ASP, application service provider. I know because my software company was an application service provider. I didn't even understand that completely, but now it's called software as a service, which really is better than application service provider. Software as a service, you get it. Okay, yeah, it's just a service they're providing and it doesn't have to be on my computer. But I think you're smart for focusing on the value for business people. In fact, it's probably a waste of time for business people to learn lots of details about blockchain technicals, don't you think?

09:16 Mary Lacity: Oh yeah, you don't need to. Just like any other technology that comes along, the real challenge is in this particular application is learning how to work with partners outside the boundaries of the firm. So figuring out shared intellectual property, figuring out a business model, figuring out shared governance. I'm gonna say, 90% of the challenges of getting value from this technology or all these managerial issues, not the underlying technology itself.

09:45 Matt Waller: And you see this in all kinds of things. One of our supply chain colleagues just recently had put out a couple of questionnaires on LinkedIn, and they were asking questions about what skills are most important for supply chain management. You might think it's systems thinking or analytical skills, on and on. Well, the one that went out every time was relating, being able to relate to people, relational skills. I don't remember what they titled it exactly. But I see this more and more in almost every area of business, the challenge is leading. And so especially when you have something like this, new opportunities for a technology blockchain, leadership is what's needed right now.

10:40 Mary Lacity: But Matt, you are a leader. And I'm just sitting over here smiling because I have a book on my shelf written by Matt Waller and Professor van Hoek and Brian Fugate and one of the PhD students on blockchains and supply chains. So you wrote one of the first books looking at a deep dive of the applications of this technology in your area of expertise, supply chain. So I just want the audience to be aware that we've got a number of experts and visionaries on blockchains on this campus.

11:13 Matt Waller: Well, thank you for mentioning that. You know, it is true, when I first wrote about blockchain, my mind went immediately to inventory management and forecasting 'cause that's my expertise. And from a theoretical perspective, information can substitute for inventory. An inventory is expensive to hold because it ties up capital that goes bad, etcetera, etcetera. But using one way to get value from blockchain is really through inventory management, including tracing and tracking and verification and all kinds of things. It's kinda like one of the examples of applying blockchain to fresh produce. If you're not using blockchain and one of your suppliers has Salmonella in their fresh produce, you throw everything away some shelves. If you use blockchain, you just throw away the bad produce. So right there, that's a no-brainer benefit from an inventory management perspective, from a transportation perspective. And just nobody likes the thought of wasting all that food either. It's ridiculous.

12:27 Mary Lacity: And that's something that does help rally your supply chain partners because you all... It's a shared pain point. So Frank Yiannas used to say, when there's a brat and outbreak, every farmer is guilty until we find the party. They're really trying to create incentives for everybody to adopt a shared solution and you have to think through a lot of that. The other thing that's really interesting you brought up, like the IBM Food Trust, which was first developed with with Walmart, is the first generation applications that we're seeing. We're not blockchain projects to start off with, these were ecosystem level challenges that parties we're trying to get together to solve a problem. They were business-led projects. They were not IT-led projects.

13:14 Mary Lacity: And then typically, a technology partner when they were brought on to help bring this vision to life. That's when, oh, blockchain is ideally suited for this particular situation. We saw that story again and again in these early adoptions. TradeLens is another application that's out there. It was initially developed by Maersk and they started these projects internal to Maersk in 2013. And they were just trying to get down the cost of tracking their containers. And when they brought IBM on as their technology partner, IBM showed them, "You know what, in order for you to remove your pain points, you're gonna have to have competitors on this platform and blockchain technologies are ideally suited to help with what you're trying to accomplish." So really, the success stories were business-led projects and the blockchains were just a back story.

14:06 Matt Waller: No. Mary, I know that this summer, the first adopters of this textbook were graduate students in our MIS programs. How did that go?

14:17 Mary Lacity: Oh Matt, I have to brag about our students. So I'm writing this book as fast as I can because I wanna use it for the summer class, I wanna bring them the most up-to-date relevant information. I finished the book, but I hadn't had a copy edited yet. And so I was giving them PDFs and of course, nobody's copy edits. I've got lots of grammatical errors. I have some spelling errors. And the students were pointing them out to me, and all I did was praised them. I said, "We have a new model here for publishing. It's called crowdsourcing the editing." I started praising them and so they really helped to improve the quality of the book. But I have to say what I think really was the magic of bringing the book into the classroom is we had guest speakers every Thursday, and I would bring somebody who was featured in the book to come talk to our class. And that's when I really saw them get excited and make connections in a way that, "Wow, this is really real."

15:13 Matt Waller: Well, you brought in some pretty big names too I noticed in the blockchain industry, a pretty impressive group.

15:24 Mary Lacity: They were so delightful of giving their time to our students. Dale Chrystie, who's the chief blockchain strategist at FedEx, he had come and he had talked to our executive advisory board member firms for the Blockchain Center of Excellence. He kinda gave the same speech to our students and the students really engaged with him and we're really excited to talk to him. He was telling them about coopetition that he's working with UPS and DHL because it takes the whole ecosystem in order to get value from this shared application. So he really inspired them. They also loved hearing from Walmart, so what they were doing with blockchains, not just the IBM Food Trust, but Walmart has a lot of blockchain projects.

16:06 Mary Lacity: One of my favorite people that I've met is Colonel Jim Regenor, and you might remember him because he was our keynote speech at our second blockchain for business conference. Retired from the Air Force, used to be a fighter pilot and said how many times he'd be in the middle of the ocean and couldn't take off because of a missing part. And so his vision was to move the DOD to 3D printing on aircraft carriers and that's how he got into blockchain 'cause how do you make sure that the instructions for printing haven't been tampered with. And so he's been on this very long journey. And he's launched VeriTX, he launched Rapid Medical Parts, and I won't go through all of them. But again, I'm so grateful to these very senior people, globally recognized for their contributions to blockchain, who are willing to give of their time and speak to our students.

16:54 Matt Waller: So Mary, like I said, this is your 30th book, which is more than most people write. Even people write a lot of books don't write 30 books. You must enjoy writing.

17:07 Mary Lacity: Once I get started, I enjoy it. But as you well know, the starting of writing is it can be excruciating. And once I'm in it, I love it because I don't... What I do when I write is that's when I figure out what do I think about a topic, so I use it as my personal process to educate myself. I don't write from outlines. I don't like to write book proposals because that suggests you have the whole book planned out. I usually start in the middle and work my way out.

17:38 Matt Waller: And I agree with you. A lot of times, I don't know what I think about something until I write it out. And in fact, even in leading in my position as dean, I write about what I'm doing every day because it helps me think through things, but you put a lot of work into this. So did you start interviewing people and then writing or did you do all the interviews and then start writing?

18:08 Mary Lacity: I think it's a process that emerges over time. So for example, some of the chapters are based on the working papers that we have at the Blockchain Center of Excellence. So one of the working papers we have is on the SmartResume project, Would You Know Well, with Dave Wengel, who's the CEO of iDatafy. So I've been working with Dave for two years and decided last January, "Hey, it's time to formalize this down into a case study." And so when I came to put it in the book, we just updated a few things. So that's how some of the stories came about and emerged. We also use content from the workshops that we have with the Blockchain Center of Excellence. We have our senior executive advisory board member firms. That's like JB Hunt and Tyson and Walmart and ArcBest, IBM, Golden State Foods, Microsoft. And we get together on topics like shared governance in blockchains or interoperability, so a lot of that content. I get permission of course from the participants. A lot of that content went into the chapters on how do you manage all this. So it's got lots of different data sources that kind of evolve over time.

19:20 Matt Waller: So Mary, what's your favorite application of blockchain that you've ever heard of?

19:28 Mary Lacity: Matt, you're asking me to pick which is my favorite child. So alright, so you know what, I'm gonna pick one. I'll pick one, but it's not in the book. So I think one of my favorite applications came from our students. So in the summer class, one of their projects... It was only a five-week class, I found this amazing. So we had four of our students present the idea of how to alleviate student food insecurity one college campus at a time. And what they were describing was what we do today is we've had food pantries. As you know, we all are always filling things in, but it doesn't give students choice. They're either stuck with our five boxes of macaroni and cheese or three cans of tuna fish. They also might feel a little reticent about publicly going to do that. And so what these students figured out is the way that most students get their foods is like 15 or 20 meals a week on a card and many students do not use those all meals and they just go to waste. So they thought, "What if we created an application where students to say, 'Hey, I'm hungry.'" They could do it anonymously. Nobody will know who they are. And the students that have excess food meals for the week could share them in an environment. I just found their application so inspiring. I found that they care about their fellow students. I'm really proud of that idea. And they're working this semester in Dr. Zach Steelman's class to help bring this application to life.

21:02 Matt Waller: Wow, that is remarkable.

21:05 Mary Lacity: And that's part of the promise of the internet of value is how can we exchange value. And in the public, it might be anonymously or you're protecting people's personal information and privacy, but still providing a social good.

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21:23 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching Be Epic podcast, one word. That's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.