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Decentralising Power, Competence and Incentives – A Case Study on Emerging Visions in the Blockchain Space


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=== CONTEXT === Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and smart contracts enjoy great popularity. The underlying technology, blockchain, is thought to bring about no less than a paradigm shift in how societies and economies interact. While considerable benefits are anticipated in domains such as e-payments, other domains allocate less attention to blockchain. In business studies, not enough attention is given to the claim that this phenomenon, the so-called ‘trust machine’ (Economist, 2015), may ‘kill the traditional firm’ (Mulligan, 2017). === OBJECTIVES === While information systems research unmistakably states that blockchain resonates with the foundation of organisation studies, scholars in this field have barely scratched the surface of blockchain and its implications for the field. Partly, this is due to a lack of technical understanding of the technology which draws from peer-to-peer networks, game theory and cryptography. The objectives of this thesis are to characterise the technology and discuss its implications for organisation studies. === METHOD === In order to make sense of this emerging technology, a qualitative case study approach is chosen. Eleven semi-structured in-depth interviews with a total length of 492 minutes were conducted with experts across Europe and North America, complemented by an analysis of technical documentation material. Observations from four industry conferences and several community events contributed ethnographic data. === RESULTS === Blockchain introduces novel forms of organisations that draw on the principles of crypto-economics. While today’s organisational forms decentralise competence and power to a varying degree, blockchain-enabled phenomena of organising introduce a third dimension: incentives. Based on these three dimensions, four novel organisational archetypes are proposed. Moreover, this study finds that the block-chain space is coined by two organising visions which diverge in sensemaking of the incentive-dimension. While one vision keeps power centralised to harness blockchain technology for economic reasons, the other vision decentralises power for value-based motivations, along with a new economic model for the Internet. === IMPLICATIONS === While the results of this study are subject to quantitative validation, these insights into the emerging phenomenon of blockchain bring up more questions than have been answered as part of this thesis. Is the blockchain-enabled incentive machine going to deliver on its promise of disrupting the nature of the firm? Are incumbents going to embrace this phenomenon and integrate it into existing systems and business models, or is blockchain a ‘crypto trojan horse’ (Waters, 2017) that inevitably changes the paradigm of artificial scarcity? Implications for both practitioners and scholars in organisation research are plentiful, as business studies and information systems are making sense of this emerging phenomenon.
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