Over the last year or so, no technology has received more attention, buzz and high hopes in business, IT and information governance (IG) literature than blockchain technology. It’s not uncommon to read terms like “game changer,” “industry redefining” and “revolutionary” to describe it. This makes sense, as blockchain technology practically guarantees to eliminate many intermediary and “gatekeeper” functions and costs in the future. It is predicted to disrupt real estate, energy and publishing, along with many other transactional sectors. As a secure, distributed and immutable public ledger capability for transactions, blockchain needs to be closely monitored by the records management profession.
But while blockchain has already been adopted in some areas (primarily in cybercurrency), it remains to be seen how this technology and its deployment will integrate with IG across an enterprise. Blockchain’s ultimate structure is undecided. Several leading blockchain platforms, such as Ethereum, which itself has old and new “hard fork” versions, are competing for adoption and market share among blue chip companies, and the outcome of this competition is uncertain. It’s risky to attach your firm to an architecture or format that may become next year’s HD DVD in a Blu-ray world.
There’s also a price to be paid for tying your enterprise to a bleeding edge technology, as I myself learned the hard way with a prior electronic records management (ERM) implementation. In this instance, our team procured brand new “best of breed” and “seamless” ERM software, then realized that we could only identify one other customer of the product. With no established community of users to share lessons learned, two different consulting firms couldn’t even help us integrate this ERM software with our document management system. We should have waited.
Other questions remain for any blockchain IG deployment. Blockchain’s distributed, peer-to-peer architecture must be reconciled with historically centralized or federated governance models. As Alex Tapscott, author of “Blockchain Revolution” recently observed, “[i]f anything will hold back blockchain, the lack of governance may scare enterprises off.” Distributed and redundant sharing also means mass duplication of enterprise information, which runs counter to IG best practices.
Since blockchain transactions are acknowledged by multiple nodes in a network, IG professionals need to determine the secure and practical number of these nodes required for various business transactions. They must also live with those policy decisions. Patrick Murck, co-founder of the Bitcoin Foundation, has observed that blockchain employs a “rigid ‘code as law’ doctrine.” This can make compliance rule changes difficult, if not impossible, without major disruption. In the foreseeable future, human intervention and flexibility will be needed in IG policy development. So professionals will need to consider the extent to which their retention policies can be held to fixed algorithms over time.
The bottom line? Proactively monitor blockchain developments, but wait and see how this emerging technology evolves before committing your enterprise IG to it.