Understanding the Decision to Adopt (or Not Adopt) RFID

By Mark Roberti

Many people think the choice is simple, but it's quite complex—and that explains why adoption is taking longer to occur than many expected.

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I am often invited to speak at events worldwide about radio frequency identification. I extol the technology’s virtues, of course, and offer examples of companies that are benefiting from using RFID (if it’s an industry event, I highlight deployments in the relevant sector). And then I am inevitably asked, “If RFID is so great, why isn’t everyone using it?”

It’s a reasonable question, but it’s based on a false assumption—namely, that companies are logical and will always do what is in their own best interest. I understand this thinking, and 99 percent of RFID providers think the same way. But businesses are run by people, and people often do not do what is in their own best interest—they don’t quit smoking, don’t exercise, don’t eat healthy and so on.

But we’re talking about technology adoption, and even here, people don’t always do the right thing. Recently, I read an article in The New York Times about an airbag for skiers that deploys when they fall (see Airbag Is Approved, but Ski Racers Are Largely Shunning It for Now). Given that downhill skiers hit speeds in excess of 80 miles (128 kilometers) per hour, you would assume every professional and Olympic skier would run out and buy one immediately.

You would, of course, be wrong. Practically no skiers are using it. Some fear that it might slow them down. Others worry that it could deploy at the wrong time, perhaps when they hit a jarring mogul. U.S. Olympian Marco Sullivan is quoted in the article as saying, “No one is going to wear it until everyone is wearing it.”

I love that quote, because it perfectly sums up technology adoption. No one is going to use RFID until everyone is using it.

Why? For the same reasons skiers don’t want to wear a life-saving airbag: They think it could put them at a competitive disadvantage. The technology might not work as advertised, and that could cost the company time and money and ruin the project manager’s reputation. Once the technology is widely used, there’s little risk to the company—and not using it then becomes a competitive disadvantage.

There are other issues that complicate the decision about whether or not to invest. A company might have other IT projects that take priority, or have problems with its brand that need fixing first. The point is, the decision to adopt a new business technology is not as simple as people assume it to be. This is the central insight of Geoffrey Moore’s seminal book “Crossing the Chasm.”

Unfortunately, it’s an insight that is still lost on many RFID companies, and it leads to bad sales and marketing decisions. Most vendors think they can sell an RFID system to any company if they can simply get to the decision maker. The technology, after all, delivers benefits. But the decision maker they are hunting is a person who is not investigating RFID and has other things on his or her mind. In reality, vendors have about the same chance of selling an RFID system to this person as the airbag maker has of selling the device to a competitive downhill skier.

So what should vendors do? They should do what’s in their best interest, and that is to focus on those companies that have a problem serious enough to make the perceived risk of investing in a relatively new technology acceptable. These are people who are actively investing time and effort in learning about RFID. They participate in online RFID seminars, attend RFID events, read RFID publications, view online RFID videos and download RFID white papers. They seek information about why and how other firms, particularly those in their industry, are using the technology.

There are a lot of people who are interested in RFID out there, and they hail from many industries—just check out See Who’s Coming at the RFID Journal LIVE! 2015 website. In the retail sector, we are getting closer to the point at which all apparel retailers will be using RFID, and that will drive greater interest in the technology from other industries as well. But RFID firms can help propel adoption by focusing on the right potential customers.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to extol RFID’s benefits at events. But I look forward to one day having attendees ask, “How else can I use RFID to achieve more benefits?”

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.