RFID and the Human Factor

An eWeek columnist suggests people could be "derailing RFID." Is he right?
Published: January 2, 2008

Radio frequency identification is a complex topic with a great deal of nuance. I’ve been reporting on it each day for nearly seven years, and I still learn new things every week. Columnists for technology trade publications and the mainstream press want to write about RFID because it’s a hot topic, but they rarely have a deep understanding of the technology, its applications or how it might deliver value. So they often come up with commentary that sounds controversial or thought provoking, but isn’t.

Take the recent column by eWeek‘s Evan Schuman, entitled The Human Factor Could Be Derailing RFID. The title sounds insightful enough. The article says “most trials are having much more modest results [than a recent Staples Canada trial of active RFID technology]. Yet even those modest improvements are not always materializing when the trials morph into full deployments.”

Schuman quotes John Fontanella, a VP of research for AMR Research and a knowledgeable RFID watcher, as saying supply-chain managers will have to trust RFID for it to work. “It’s a keen observation on human behavior,” Schuman writes. “The managers in the field are often the ones who are most suspicious about RFID claims. And if they internalize those suspicions and opt to ignore the recommendations, then it’s obvious the chips will have no positive impact.”

Schuman is not entirely off base with his comments. It is true that RFID requires some changes to business processes, and people often try to buck change. But here’s my objection to this column: The same is true for any new technology. Half of all IT projects fail, and a big reason is that human beings don’t adapt to new technology. So the fact that the same could be true of RFID is a non-story—just filler on a slow news day.

Here are some other facts of which Schuman is apparently unaware:

1. Most RFID trials are successful, and most rollouts deliver a greater return on investment than expected. Over the past seven years, I’ve talked to hundreds of companies that have deployed RFID, so I feel confident in saying this. We have published countless case studies across many applications and industries, and I would say the success rate is higher than for most IT projects.

Schuman has probably read stories about the lack of ROI in tagging done to comply with mandates and, in his ignorance, extrapolated from that to cover all RFID projects.

2. The human factor is less of an issue with RFID than with most IT projects. RFID reduces the mundane tasks humans have to perform, so they usually wind up embracing the technology. Let’s take two projects. In one case, a company deploys a new customer relationship management (CRM) program, and in another, a company deploys RFID to track the location of pallets in a warehouse.

The CRM project could fail because end users have to learn an entirely new method of performing their jobs. They also have to learn how to use unfamiliar software, and populate that software with data while doing their regular jobs. Many might choose not to use the CRM system, or just to utilize its most basic functions.

In the case of the warehouse use of RFID, forklift truck drivers have less work to do, not more. Rather than scanning bar codes on pallets and rack locations, they simply drive up to a rack and put the pallet away. A reader on the forklift truck reads RFID tags on the pallet and rack location. It’s hard to imagine how this could negatively impact the rollout.

3. Managers do trust RFID. The claim that field managers are the most skeptical of RFID is simply wrong. I am continuously approached by supply-chain managers who say they see the enormous potential of RFID, but that they can’t get senior management to buy in. It’s the senior managers who are skeptical of what RFID can deliver, not the field managers.

And I don’t believe trusting the data is going to be a huge problem. Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and many others are tracking promotional displays with RFID. They can see from the data that some displays are not where they need to be. They trust that data—and when they act on it, they get benefits.

Where RFID requires people to change the way they do their jobs, rollouts could be slowed by resistance to change. But I would say the human factor is smaller in RFID rollouts than with most IT projects.