Blockchain belongs to the number of technologies that are gaining momentum in various industries due to their hypothesized ability to change the world by improving the principles of data management. The technology was first presented more than ten years ago, and the number of its potential applications has significantly increased since then. The use of blockchain in various business activities presents an interesting research topic since it allows keeping track of its evolution. This paper presents a review of twenty research papers focused on the real and potential business applications of blockchain.
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Problem Statement, Significance, and Objectives
In the modern world, the emergence of blockchain technologies is often regarded as one of the most promising trends that will help people to revolutionize a wide range of processes that impact people’s quality of life. Being aware of the key achievements of blockchain-based services and companies, some individuals are likely to overestimate the actual success of these technologies and start promoting the unrealistic image of blockchain.
Therefore, the research problem that explains the need to review the existing literature about the blockchain technology in business is based on potential incoherencies between the hard-driving ambitions of blockchain proponents and the actual situation with their use in commercial activities. To put it in other words, the research problem that encouraged the creation of the paper is centered on the necessity to categorize various studies in the field to separate the real-life uses of blockchain in different aspects of business operations from propositions for future research. Achieving the goal above will help understand the state of the art.
The problem of ambitions versus reality exists in any field of research, and its practical implications make it specifically important. About blockchain in business, the problem deserves special attention since its proposed applications are numerous. The significance of the research problem is inextricably connected to blockchain’s status of disruptive technology. In the context of commercial activities, disruptive innovations alter the existing systems of business values and the principles of competition.
Taking that into account, if the universal use of such technologies is not preceded by many years of thorough research focused on both theoretical and practical challenges, it can lead to a variety of large-scale problems and crises. Studying blockchain technologies and their real and planned applications in business is a significant task due to the projected benefits of their universal implementation. The latter is expected to drastically change the basic approaches to business-making by eliminating the need for some excessive steps in business operations and reducing bureaucracy.
Apart from numerous process optimization opportunities typically associated with blockchain, it is necessary to conduct literature reviews devoted to the chosen topic because of the technology’s said ability to transform business ethics. According to popular opinions, the key advantage of blockchain relates to the mechanisms helping to establish trust-based relationships between some parties and revolutionize this process.
Using the logic of independent researchers and blockchain proponents who support this viewpoint, it is possible to say that in the fullness of time, blockchain will lead to the extinction of fraud in the business. Taking into account the potential benefits associated with this goal, it is particularly important to contribute to blockchain research by reviewing the available studies and evaluating the practicality of some far-reaching propositions and scientific claims.
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To summarize the points presented above, blockchain research is a very young scientific field, and any contributions are required to help separate the practically viable applications of the technology from statements that are still groundless. With that in mind, this literature review is aimed at reaching the following objectives:
- Conduct a literature search to evaluate the degree to which blockchain innovations are of interest to modern researchers;
- Analyze blockchain technologies concerning the current state of knowledge;
- Define popular trends surrounding the uses of blockchain technology in business activities;
- Study different authors’ scientific propositions to make conclusions concerning the most promising applications of blockchain;
- Differentiate between the actual use cases and the proposed ideas related to blockchain in business.
- Identify the research gaps to be addressed by future specialists in IT and business.
The Review of Literature
Cryptocurrencies, Payment Opportunities, and Associated Disadvantages
The first important theme that is present in academic papers devoted to blockchain relates to new payment opportunities that are available to customers and possess numerous advantages compared to more traditional options. Speaking about the topic, it is necessary to pay attention to cryptocurrencies, a widely discussed but controversial topic. In their research on payment options and new opportunities to find clients and make some businesses more visible and valuable, many authors focus on bitcoin, its uses in the international market, and related threats (Grinberg, 2012; Grover, Kar, & Vigneswara, 2018; White, 2017).
The earliest known application of the blockchain technology, bitcoin, presents a digital currency that is decentralized, “partially anonymous”, not “backed by any legal entities or governments”, and cannot be redeemed for other commodities (Grinberg, 2012, p. 160). Among the widely acknowledged advantages of its use is integrity, being immune to inflation and deflation rates, and increased affordability of international financial transactions, and new opportunities for underbanked populations (Sun, Yan, & Zhang, 2016; Grinberg, 2012; Önder & Treiblmaier, 2018). Therefore, since its emergence, bitcoin has been regarded as a promising innovation.
The use of cryptocurrencies is also supposed to benefit some small businesses due to the lack of limitations related to the number of payments. Considering their advantages such as liquidity and the ability to make payments instantly, the proponents of such payment systems state that they can become the best option for micropayments (Grinberg, 2012; Grover et al., 2018). The opportunity to accept micropayments can be listed among the most important applications of blockchain technology in business to consumer transactions.
To some extent, it changes the principles of competition and helps customers to make donations to support some organizations that face the problems of political censorship (Grinberg, 2012). Using the proof-of-work system that ensures the safety of monetary transactions, cryptocurrencies and e-commerce micropayments are generally believed to improve the flow of online business activities (Belle, 2017). Thus, opportunities related to micropayments make cryptocurrencies a driver of change that enables businesses to receive funding from interested parties all over the world.
Despite the perceived ability of cryptocurrencies to simplify business-making and improve its security, modern researchers list a variety of risk factors that mainly relate to legal definitions and the implementation of anti-terrorism laws and policies. Being a “combination of game theory and cryptography”, the technology makes the exchange of monetary resources less controlled by official financial institutions, thus causing specific problems (Belle, 2017, p. 280).
For instance, the availability of fast and anonymous transactions is sometimes believed to contribute to crime rates, especially when it comes to the illegal drug trade and the sponsorship of terrorism (Grinberg, 2012). Apart from that, the criticism of cryptocurrencies in B2C activities can be related to energy economy considerations. As it is stated in the study by Belle (2017), some types of blockchain that utilize the proof-of-work methods are a “waste of computing power” since the amount of energy used to create the bitcoin blockchain is almost equal to the energy consumption rates in some Central Asian countries (p. 281). Based on that, the applications of cryptocurrencies in contemporary businesses are limited due to the legal status of electronic cash systems and access to resources.
Despite the existing disadvantages, many scholars still believe that further research will help individuals involved in businesses to benefit from the use of cryptocurrencies. As an example, Önder and Treiblmaier (2018) suppose that by adopting digital currencies everywhere and studying their benefits for end-customers, it is possible to facilitate the work of new customer-to-customer markets in the tourist industry. Continuing on research directions, it needs to be said that similar to valuable goods in the physical world, digital money can be stolen by criminals or simply lost due to several reasons such as security flaws (Grinberg, 2012).
New approaches to proof-of-work mechanisms to be used in peer-to-peer payment systems have been outlined by Chinese researchers (Zhao, Fan, & Yan, 2016). To address the actual security concerns raised by bitcoin cash opposers, it is possible to increase the total number of nodes participating in mining activities, thus minimizing the opportunity to conduct successful majority attacks (Zhao et al., 2016). Overall, despite blockchain technologies significantly increase the number of available payment options, cryptocurrencies are not used universally.
Identity Management, Fraud Prevention, and Consumer Protection
It is clear from modern researchers’ findings that new payment options are not the only application of blockchain technology in the world of business. Innovations in blockchain research are usually centered on commercial benefits and the ways to increase some businesses’ competitive advantage (Grover et al., 2018; Önder & Treiblmaier, 2018). Despite that, more attention is now being paid to blockchain technologies in solving some global challenges that relate both to businesses and ethical issues. For example, blockchain-based projects are supposed to help improve some commonly used business models and providing new tools for personal data management (Kewell, Adams, & Parry, 2017). However, particular methods helping to achieve these goals are not widely discussed in the existing literature.
Financial inclusion is especially important for businesses since it strengthens the links between entrepreneurs and their target clients, thus impacting sales volumes and other important performance indicators. According to Kewell et al. (2017) who study the links between blockchain and social good, the technology can be used to reduce financially excluded populations by providing new solutions for managing people’s data. “Identity management and authentication” are among the promising applications of blockchain in B2G business models (Grover et al., 2018).
Blockchain-based applications for the formation of legal identity are supposed to improve global business processes in four different ways. They include the following: ensuring compliance with immigration policies, addressing national security concerns, increasing political engagement with the help of new options for voters, and making crimes that involve the misuse of others’ data less common (Grover et al., 2018; Kewell et al., 2017; Zhao et al., 2016).
To achieve the fourth objective, Kewell et al. (2017) believe, it is pivotal to decentralize identity, reverse the process of its formation to “build identities from the bottom up”, and enable users to manage their profiles and hide some attributes for safety (p. 434). Nowadays, companies and initiatives involved in the development of such systems include the Blockchain Border Bank, BitNation, and the ID2020 project (Kewell et al., 2017). It is immediately apparent from the points above that business applications of the blockchain technology are not limited to methods that improve low-level events in business and are focused on profit maximization.
Apart from helping businesses to prevent consumer fraud, modern uses of the technology in question allow protecting the safety of clients’ data with the help of the trusted user interface. The latter is supposed to facilitate “instant social sharing”, make it easier for clients to share information, and reduce numerous risks related to malicious software and data privacy (Grover et al., 2018, p. 330; Kewell et al., 2017; Hawlitschek, Notheisen, & Teubner, 2018).
Despite its numerous advantages, the trusted user interface and some problems peculiar to its creation are underresearched. According to Hawlitschek et al. (2018), the issue manifests itself in the absence of clear terminology since the word “trust” and other key terms tend to have dissimilar meanings depending on the context. The studies by Hawlitschek et al. (2018) and Kewell et al. (2017) share some similarities when it comes to the future of the trusted user interface. According to them, the impact of the human factor (people’s understanding of trust in business, technical aptitude, and personal experience) presents a limitation that negatively affects progress.
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Smart Contracts in Various Industries and They’re Potential
The use of smart contracts to reach agreements and define the rights and responsibilities of interested parties is a common application of blockchain in business. A smart contract is usually defined as “a transaction protocol executing the terms of a contract”, and its applications in business are numerous (Zheng, Xie, Dai, Chen, & Wang, 2018, p. 370). Even though such contracts possess numerous advantages when it comes to business-making, they are not immune to cyber-attacks. There have been several cases of smart contract hacks resulting in the loss of funds, and vulnerability is a factor that prevents the global implementation of this tool (Zheng et al., 2018).
Speaking about the benefits of using blockchain and smart contracts in business, many researchers refer to new opportunities related to paperwork processing (Guo & Liang, 2016; Mengelkamp, Notheisen, Beer, Dauer, & Weinhardt, 2018). For example, smart contracts can be effectively used in financial services to control the interactions between the key trading parties and ensure the timeliness of payments (Guo & Liang, 2016). Therefore, despite smart contracts’ vulnerability to cybercrime, their use is beneficial to operate costs.
In modern studies devoted to blockchain in business, smart contracts are often seen as an option that saves time and ensures the safety of transactions. In particular, the article by Guo and Liang (2016) mentions some problems surrounding large financial transactions such as the need to use the letters of credit for risk elimination. Since they include over thirty different documents that should be prepared, checked, and delivered, these letters create numerous operational risks (Guo & Liang, 2016). With the help of the technology being discussed, it is possible to create smart contracts responsible for performing this procedure, and therefore, reduce the time needed for document processing to one hour (Guo & Liang, 2016).
In general, smart contracts present a blockchain-based tool that can be implemented in any type of business since such contracts add credibility to agreements and facilitate the timely fulfillment of contract provisions (Zheng et al., 2018). The feature that makes them valuable for modern businesses is the immutability of contract provisions: parties signing a smart contract are supposed to have no opportunities to falsify any data to pursue their interests (Zheng et al., 2018).
Also, the use of self-executing contracts can be beneficial to businesses since they are based on the principles of data transparency and the updatability of information – any events that relate to the collaboration of parties become visible to all participants instantly (García-Bañuelos, Ponomarev, Dumas, & Weber, 2017; Zheng et al., 2018; Sun et al., 2016). As it follows from the benefits listed above, the features of smart contracts make them a good option for various types of businesses.
As the chosen research articles demonstrate, smart contracts can be successfully applied to business activities in different industries. For instance, Mengelkamp et al. (2018) utilize blockchain technology to create a model of a local energy market, the mechanism of which is based on a self-executing contract on a non-public blockchain written in Solidity. The model allows using smart contracts to control the release of payments and process orders placed by consumers (Mengelkamp et al., 2018). Similar to Mengelkamp et al. (2018), García-Bañuelos et al. (2017) utilize Solidity supported by Ethereum to demonstrate the uses of self-executing contracts for the optimization of business activities with the intent of reducing initialization costs and maximizing the throughput of operations.
In addition to local electricity markets, smart contracts can find extensive use in land registration businesses and even help to regulate conflicts in relationships. The second generation of blockchain technology allows conducting several transactions right after a particular event (García-Bañuelos et al., 2017). If the principle is applied to land registries, the system automatically withdraws tax payments, transfers funds, and changes property titles once a sales transaction is conducted (García-Bañuelos et al., 2017).
Apart from the registration of property, the creation of self-executing contracts helps regulate any types of relationships, ranging from the collaborative work of two suppliers to matrimonial alliances (Beck, Avital, Rossi, & Thatcher, 2017; García-Bañuelos et al., 2017). As an example, according to Beck et al. (2017), Ethereum allows creating contracts that introduce the rules helping to divide marital property in case of divorce.
The examples found in the reviewed literature prove the point that smart contracts apply to different businesses. However, the extent to which it can affect industries that involve contractors that do not know each other and have to make international payments presents a significant concern. Discussing the research propositions related to blockchain in the tourist industry, Önder and Treiblmaier (2018) suggest that smart contracts present an ideal option for such contractors and, therefore, they can change the future of customer-to-customer tourism marketplaces. Continuing on the relevance of smart contracts to long-distance business partnerships, Sikorski, Haughton, and Kraft (2017) list their potential uses in the construction and the chemical industries to prove that this tool will revolutionize business processes.
Given that self-executing agreements leave no room for fraud, their use can help address the problem of construction delays caused by the breach of promises such as the non-payment of salaries, insufficient financing, and similar factors (Sikorski et al., 2017). The suggestions above that refer to the great opportunities of smart contracts in business process optimization are also supported by Viriyasitavat, Da Xu, Bi, and Sapsomboon (2018) who study their potential in the context of cyber manufacturing.
The Role of Blockchain in Supply Chains: Management and Traceability
Supply chains involve multiple risks related to the presence of untrustworthy contracting parties, the complexity of business operations, cybercrime, and other factors. Analyzing risk mitigation in supply chains, the studies by Tian (2016), Tieman and Darun (2017), Apte and Petrovsky (2016), and Saberi, Kouhizadeh, Sarkis, and Shen (2018) list the actual and potential applications of blockchain technology that facilitate the delivery of services and goods from suppliers to end-users.
The benefits of the technology in supply chains found in the existing literature include increases in transparency and synergy due to well-organized inter- and intra-level collaboration, risk management opportunities, the absence of single points of failure, and quality assurance.
Understanding the importance of product quality in the delivery of perishable goods, modern researchers discuss the uses of blockchain in the food industry. For instance, Tieman and Darun (2017) apply it to the supply of halal food in both non-Muslim and Muslim countries and theorize about the benefits of blockchain-based supply chains. In their understanding, the ability of blockchain to improve the traceability of alimentary goods and immediately report any parties’ defaults from their obligations are particularly important in the halal food industry due to strict quality standards and related penalties (Tieman & Darun, 2017).
Just like Tieman and Darun (2017), Tian (2016) studies traceability in food supply chains with special attention to the prevention of food fraud. In contrast to the previous researchers, he demonstrates the compatibility of different technologies such as blockchain and RFID and offers the following advantages of his theoretical model: opportunities for real-time product tracking, the credibility of product safety data, and fraud prevention (Tian, 2016). Therefore, an important research problem related to the supply chain applications of the technology being discussed is the ability to propel food safety inspections to the next level.
The security of supply chains in different industries remains an open question despite the statements made by many researchers interested in the given topic. The work by Apte and Petrovsky (2016) reviews the state of the art in business applications of the technology and summarizes the key suggestions related to the advantages of blockchain for supply chains (traceability, fraud prevention, the timeliness of delivery, etc). In their discussion, the researchers focus on the production of pharmaceutical drugs. The findings listed in the given work align with the propositions of other researchers who center their analysis on supply chain management in other industries.
In line with the previously mentioned researchers, Apte and Petrovsky (2016) list traceability, the immutability of key data, and the speed of operation as the most promising features of blockchain technologies. Even though these benefits characterize the uses of blockchain in supply chains positively, modern scholars acknowledge that the technology is now incapable of “replacing traditional quality and auditing
processes” (Apte & Petrovsky, 2016, p. 77; Tian, 2016). To some extent, the limitations related to the reliability of blockchain-based systems for supply chain management are distilled down to issues with equipment and cybersecurity mentioned in the studies by Belle (2017), Grinberg (2012), Hawlitschek et al. (2018), and other authors. These potential problem areas include the possibility of majority attacks that allow entering unwanted transactions into blockchain-based systems.
About supply chain management and the peculiarities of the field, the problems can manifest themselves in changes in product quality documentation, exclusivity, “preferred suppliers”, and logistics strategies (Apte & Petrovsky, 2016, p. 77). To be put in other words, many issues surrounding the uses of blockchain in supply chains are inextricably connected to different parties’ competing interests.
Summarizing the findings related to the applications of blockchain technologies in supply chain management, it is possible to say that despite their increased data traceability, their use does not guarantee the absence of mistakes or opportunities for data falsification. Generalizing on the technology’s ability to revolutionize product tracking in supply chains, Apte and Petrovsky (2016) state that blockchain is of great help when it comes to delivery, but its use does not “alleviate the need for quality audits” (p. 78).
Similar ideas are expressed in the study by Saberi et al. (2018) that lists security challenges among the greatest barriers to the implementation of blockchain in supply chain management. According to Saberi et al. (2018), the establishment of blockchain-based systems can help to achieve sustainability, but success will be heavily dependent on the quality of technical solutions for overcoming inter- and intra-organizational barriers. Judging from the positions of other specialists whose works are listed in the section, the majority of modern authors recognize the critical role of further research based on practical cases in unlocking the full potential of blockchain-based solutions for supply chains.
Gaps in the Reviewed Literature
All studies included in the review discuss the applications of blockchain in business in a detailed way, but there is still a range of problems that require attention and additional research. To begin with, when it comes to the discussion of real-life projects that are based on blockchain technologies, the majority of studies tend to list the same examples such as Everledger, Ethereum, Bitcoin, and some websites that provide cryptocurrency exchange services. As for the additional examples that deal with financial services and other fields of business, they are not always analyzed with attention to the history of development and their actual financial outcomes.
Based on that, many studies from the list review only the most well-known examples of blockchain-based businesses, whereas the increased focus is placed on theorizing, planning, and outlining new opportunities. The tendency is manifested in the chosen works to a different degree. For instance, the studies by Önder and Treiblmaier (2018) and Tieman and Darun (2017) are focused solely on research propositions related to blockchain in the tourism industry and halal food supply. Therefore, the first important gap presents the relation between the actual uses of the blockchain (with the analysis of practical outcomes) and the proposed applications that are still untested.
In addition to that, the existing gaps include a range of problems linked to the barriers to blockchain implementation. Almost all studies included in the review apply the principles of critical thinking to the discussed uses of blockchain in business and present several concerns related to the practical aspects of the technology’s applications. Despite that, taking into account the state of things in blockchain research, practically implementable strategies that would help overcome these barriers are not proposed, and this problem presents a significant research gap.
Speaking about the issues that require further research centered on practical problem solving, it is pivotal to mention the absence of legal frameworks that would help businesses that utilize blockchain and cryptocurrencies to build effective partnership relationships and avoid jurisdictional issues (Grinberg, 2012; Belle, 2017). Also, the approaches to the prevention of criminal activities using blockchain are not thoroughly discussed in the studies.
One more research gap that deserves attention is related to the optimization of blockchain-based tools for businesses. Although modern authors pay close attention to the ability of blockchain to make business processes more focused and efficient, the discussion seems to be limited by the recognition of its operating disadvantages. Interestingly, this research gap is the most obvious in the studies devoted to the supply chain applications of blockchain technologies.
For instance, many authors acknowledge the high implementation costs of blockchain-based supply chain management systems, but no solutions are presented (Tian, 2016; Grover et al., 2018; Saberi et al., 2018). Based on that, it is possible to say that many gaps in the available literature are directly related to blockchain’s actual immaturity and the financial peculiarities of disruptive technologies.
To sum it up, blockchain technology is supposed to be a promising innovation that has the potential to revolutionize a range of business processes in various industries. As it follows from the existing studies, the current applications of blockchain in business include new payment options due to the emergence of cryptocurrencies, micropayments, self-executing contracts that reduce fraud, e-commerce, and many others.
At the same time, some initiatives and suggestions are not fully implemented into practice and require further research. They include the use of blockchain for personality identification, reducing the number of financially underserved people, product tracking in supply chains, the creation of smart cities, new opportunities for voters and property owners, and so on.
According to the review, the key advantages of blockchain in the world of business include increased credibility of transactions, new conflict resolution principles in commercial relationships, and customer satisfaction due to the transparency of businesses. Additionally, among these benefits are the speed of international financial operations, new tools to verify the quality of goods and services, the effectiveness of financial inclusion strategies, and the transformation of competition in the global market.
Although the degree to which the potential of blockchain in business is unlocked constantly increases, several research gaps still need to be addressed to make the best use of the technology in question. These gaps are strictly interconnected with real and potential problems that occur during the development and implementation of blockchain-based tools for businesses. Among them are high implementation costs, the existing threats to the security of assets, and inconsistencies between the actual applications of blockchain and legal systems in different countries.
In general, despite the presence of detailed projects that aim to adopt blockchain for various purposes, many applications of the technology are still in the pilot stage. Taking these problems into consideration, it is possible to conclude that researchers in the field still need to fill in several gaps directly related to practice and real interactions in business.
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