Does blockchain have the power to turn ECM inside out?

Editorial Type: Technology Focus Date: 2018-01-01 Views: 1,234 Tags: Green, ECM, Strategy, Compliance, Cryptography, SER PDF Version:
Alexandra Lilienthal of SER Group suggests that snubbing blockchain's deep-rooted capabilities in Enterprise Content Management could be an unwise decision in the long run
There is a real buzz around blockchain, the distributed database that underpins Bitcoin. It was first used for recording cryptocurrency transactions, but it has now become clear that blockchain is a powerful business tool in its own right. Basically, it can be used to independently record and verify anything that has happened, such as tracking the provenance of documents to smart contracts or digital identities.

Decentralised blockchain systems are being promoted as the new way to solve old business problems. Ones that will not only record and protect an organisation's dealings, but also change our lives - from the way we prove who we are to how we buy a home.

Blockchain is in essence an open source distributed database that uses cryptography to allow parties to transparently collaborate and track transactions and interactions. The big advantage is that it doesn't require intermediaries to authenticate or confirm transactions. It is unalterable and secure, with all records requiring verification by the whole validation group.

Blockchain's beauty is that it is open, yet provides the security element of cryptography to secure records. In addition, it makes sure that everyone's records in the validation group are synchronised with each other. Each transaction is linked to previous records. By utilising a totally distributed ledger and encryption, the technology neatly removes the single point of failure risk factor.

Blockchain has the ability to disrupt a wide range of industries, from finance to supply chain, when it comes to document management - as well as the public sector. The latter often suffers from bureaucracy, security and efficiency issues. So it is no surprise government agencies are exploring how they can adopt blockchain.

Sweden's land agency, for example, is piloting blockchain to digitise land deeds, speed up property purchases and reduce the risk of fraud. Blockchain is used to share data with all parties within a property sale. Each step in the sale is verified and recorded using blockchain technology. Processes that previously took months to go through various offices and stakeholders can now take place quickly and efficiently. Blockchain transparently tracks the deal along its journey, providing a permanent ledger.

But what is the scope for blockchain in document management and can it slot into ECM? To work out its possibilities and spotlight any challenges, we need to look at what makes blockchain so different.

ECM systems are skilled when it comes to content and process traceability as well as establishing audit trails for compliance purposes. With blockchain, however, this sort of flexibility is unworkable as each and every saved transaction can be tracked, but it can't be assigned to an individual. It is also important to note that public blockchains don't allow for blocks to be altered. Even a small edit such as adding a full stop to created content requires the entire process to be accepted by the group.

We also have the recurring issue of data security versus public data accessibility. The distributed network of users that make up the verification process highlights blockchain's real value as an open, trusted and transparent peer-to-peer verification tool. But this locks horns with an organisation's desire to control the security and privacy of its data, which is usually done within ring-fenced internal networks.

The very idea that organisations will consider taking blockchain content management on board may be somewhat extreme, given the technological infrastructures they have in place today. Private blockchain, however, may be the answer - allowing for access permissions, modifications and deletions, for example.

It is also necessary to address the issue of central administration as an alternative to distributed ledgers. Data sovereignty, security and compliance are all important to consider when installing ECM solutions. These usually work together with enterprise policies and regulatory requirements that demand centralised administration of both users and data management. If you dive deeper into blockchain you will see it is a different breed indeed. By utilising automated, distributed ledgers for transaction validation and confirmation, for example, you can't link to profiles from individuals. This is in direct opposition with the philosophy of ECM.

The big issue, however, is scalability - a key factor of digital business. Because of the way blockchains are formed many expect them to be flexible and extensible. But, unfortunately, this is far from the truth due to gargantuan workloads queuing up for validation. In contrast, it may surprise many that ECM solutions are extremely easy to scale.

Blockchain, as I am sure you will have now realised, is no silver bullet. But it is definitely a very valuable technology to add to the ECM platform toolbox at some point in the future. Assets include smart contracts and automated payment processes, for example.

Blockchain solutions are being developed at speed and they will have a huge impact on business processes. By exploring blockchain's strengths, the ECM industry as a whole can discover new and exciting routes to managing content that will have a positive impact on data flow, security and transparency.
More info: www.ser-solutions.com

"ECM systems are skilled when it comes to content and process traceability as well as establishing audit trails for compliance purposes. With blockchain, however, this sort of flexibility is unworkable as each and every saved transaction can be tracked, but it can't be assigned to an individual. It is also important to note that public blockchains don't allow for blocks to be altered. Even a small edit such as adding a full stop to created content requires the entire process to be accepted by the group."