SharePoint, Workflow, and Digital Signatures in 3 Pictures

By Richard Medina posted 05-02-2014 13:54


This post uses 3 stylized Easter Eggs or Nested Russian Dolls to illustrate three related topics:

  1. What’s the difference between SharePoint, workflow, and the other varieties of process management?
  2. What’s the difference between the varieties of electronic signatures and digital signatures?
  3. How do they all fit together?

Look at the left egg or doll first. BPM is the largest containing category of process management. It contains workflow as a subset. Workflow contains at least three SharePoint-centric varieties of Workflow as subsets.

Let’s make a distinction here. In all of them you are using SharePoint as the document repository. But the main question is what you’re also using it for process management.

The innermost subset is what you can use SharePoint 2010 workflow for.  SP 2010 workflow is limited in breadth, depth, complexity, and scope – which is fine, but it’s also a fact. SP 2013 workflow can do more – it has more breadth, depth, complexity, and scope. SharePoint supplemented by third party BPM and workflow products can do even more. I show K2 and Nintex, but they are just two of the more typical examples.

Now if you look at the egg/doll on the right side, Electronic Signatures is the large containing category. It contains a variety of ways to do non-wet, non-hardcopy signatures, including Digitized Signatures, like signing a credit card transaction on a tablet, “click here” buttons in approval workflows, pasting in bitmaps. But it also contains digital signatures. Digital signatures are the most important and powerful subset of electronic signatures.

Now if you look at the third egg or doll, you see the first two doll eggs combined. And what you see is that the subset of digital signatures is the most powerful in terms of breadth and scope. It can address SharePoint in all varieties, and workflow, and data-centric BPM. That power comes with complexity and cost, however, and there are many applications that are appropriate for the different kinds of electronic signatures, e.g. signing off in an internal workflow application where you don’t need the advanced capabilities and it’s not worth the higher complexity and cost of digital signatures.

For those who are unfamiliar with the technology, we need to establish the difference between electronic signatures and digital signatures. Some standards bodies and government regulations use the term “electronic signature” interchangeably between, say, scanned or fax signature images (i.e., “digitized images”) and public-key encryption-based digital signatures. An “electronic signature” may be a bit-map representation, either from a scanned image, a fax copy or a picture of someone’s signature, or a typed acknowledgement or acceptance. A digital signature is “extra data appended to a message which identifies and authenticates the sender and message data using public-key encryption”. Some digital signature systems will combine the authenticated signature data with an associated bit-map image. 

The most important characteristics of digital signatures are the following:

  • They are based on open, standards-based technology
  • They are integrated with standard directory systems (AD, others)
  • They have productized integration with desktop applications (like MS Office), ECM systems, workflow and BPM tools, mobile devices, and other applications
  • They can address both document-centric and data-centric signature applications

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. If you’re interested in more detail on digital signatures, SharePoint, and process management, see my archived AIIM webinar, SharePoint Workflows + Digital Signatures: No more paper, Fast ROI.

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