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Collaboration Can Accelerate RFID Adoption

Competitors working together can speed up the adoption of radio frequency identification, by agreeing on standards and how to implement them—which benefits all players.
By Mark Roberti
Jun 27, 2011I've written a great deal about Geoffrey Moore's theory of the technology-adoption cycle, and I strongly believe he is right about many things. One issue he does not address in any significant way, however, is the role that collaboration among businesses plays in technology adoption. The tributes to Alan Haberman, who died recently (see Remembering Alan Haberman), got me thinking about this topic, and I'd like to share my thoughts.

Haberman, as his many obituaries pointed out, was the head of the industry committee in the 1960s that selected the type of bar code that would be used by the grocery industry. That committee, made up of executives from that sector, unified the industry behind a single bar-code standard, and helped to propel the technology's adoption.

According to Moore, a new technology "enters the tornado"—that is, goes through a phase of rapid adoption—when critical mass is reached. In other words, when enough companies adopt a single type of technology, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon as well. Bar codes didn't really reach critical mass until the early 1980s, when Wal-Mart Stores and K-Mart adopted them, and required that their suppliers use them on everything. Those two big retailers created the critical mass necessary to make the bar code ubiquitous in the United States.

When industry leaders get together and decide industry-wide that adoption will benefit everyone, collaboration can unify an industry around standards, and provide guidelines regarding how those benefits are implemented. This can greatly reduce the amount of time that it takes to achieve critical mass.

We're seeing this in apparel retail today. Most companies that tag clothing have chosen to use passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags based on GS1's Electronic Product Code (EPC) standards. Some are putting their own numbers in EPC tags. But industry leaders have realized that everyone will benefit if all apparel retailers and suppliers utilize EPC standards. That is why Dillard's, JCPenney, Jones Apparel, Macy's and Walmart are working together through the VICS Item-Level RFID Initiative (VILRI) to promote the adoption of EPC standards, and to agree on how they should be implemented.

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