Could blockchains rattle ECM?

Blockchains first entered public consciousness as a means of managing crypto-currency, but as the use cases broaden what might be the impact on enterprise content management? SER’s Alexandra Lilienthal suggests that discounting the model’s potential in ECM may be shortsighted

There may still be some significant challenges to overcome, but blockchains – used originally to manage digital currency – seem poised to re-write the rules of business. In which case, could blockchains supersede existing methods of managing enterprise content? It’s a topic CIOs could find themselves questioned about in the near future.

Blockchains are distributed, crowd-validated ledgers which use internet-connected computers and open source software all over the world to verify transactions. One of their major benefits in financial transactions is their immunity to tampering, thanks to the built-in consensus mechanism.

In theory, this could also make blockchain a secure, verifiable and permanent solution for exchanges of any kind – for managing records, for instance. Sweden’s land registry authority is currently exploring blockchains’ potential as a mechanism for recording property deals. In this context, the blockchain would confirm and save each step in the contract process between buyers and sellers, while making each deal’s information transparent to all parties such as banks and local governments.

But how far could this go, and what does it mean for ECM as we know it?

To assess the potential and any limitations we must consider what sets blockchains’ approach apart.

Traceability vs anonymity

ECM systems make a big deal of content and process traceability, for instance the ability to create an audit trail for compliance purposes. When Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation comes into play in May 2018, these requirements will extend to a traceable deletion process for personal information. In a blockchain-based content scenario, that level of granularity of visibility does not exist. Here, the emphasis is on anonymity which means that, although each saved block transaction is traceable, it cannot be attributed to any single individual.

Additionally, public blockchains do not allow for deletion or modification of any of the blocks. Even a change as minimal as adding a comma to existing content would require that the entire peer-to-peer blockchain validation process is executed.

Data security vs public information accessibility

The many parties involved in the verification process give blockchains their value as an open, public peer-to-peer verification tool. But this is at odds with many organizations’ need for control over the security and privacy of data, which is typically achieved by keeping this within their own internal networks.

The idea that enterprises might venture into the black art of blockchain content management is probably a leap too far then – certainly as things are. Hybrid, ‘private’ blockchains may be needed to secure enterprise acceptance – those that can also be modified to include access permissions, modifications and deletions.

Central administration vs distributed ledgers

Data sovereignty, security and compliance are fundamental considerations when organizations choose an ECM solution. These goals typically work hand in hand with company policies and regulatory requirements that call for the centralized administration of user and data management.

Blockchains, by contrast, take a completely different approach. The use of automated, distributed ledgers for the validation and confirmation of transactions means these cannot be connected to individual user profiles, conflicting with one of the basic tenets of ECM.

Scalability

Although it might be assumed that blockchains are inherently scalable, this isn’t the case – because of the workload as queues of blocks compete for validation. Where ECM involves large and growing databases, this could compromise performance. By contrast, modern ECM systems are easy to scale and can process files and data quickly. Confirmation that content has been filed, updated or deleted is accessible in real time too.

Despite all this, it is conceivable that a blockchain model could add new value to existing ECM platforms – for instance within the following parameters:

  • As a secure and compliant system that protects data, respects individual privacy and empowers companies by creating anonymized, verified and self-managed ‘profiles’ for employees, customers and suppliers;
  • Via a private blockchain approach that complies with rules and regulations but offers more flexible editing and deletion policies;
  • To support increasing emphasis on smart contracts — standard agreements that can be automatically created and enforced (aided by artificial intelligence/machine learning) without the need for lawyers;
  • Automated payment processes which settle accounts on delivery/when terms have been met.

It is by seeing beyond blockchains’ limitations that the ECM industry and its customers have a chance to drive new content management innovation. Being closed off to the possibilities benefits no one.

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Alexandra Lilienthal

International Communication at SER Group
Based in Berlin, Alexandra heads the international communication team of Global ECM
vendor ‎SER Group.

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