For years, i've kept a dog-eared paperback in my top desk drawer. Titled The Experts Speak, it offers some startling examples of wisdom from the "experts" that over time has proved wrong … very, very wrong! When I'm writing, I often find myself leafing through its pages in search of an appropriate anecdote. The book seldom disappoints.
On page 159, for instance, we read a snippet of 1889 correspondence from the editor of "The San Francisco Examiner" to Rudyard Kipling: "I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language." Oops!
Turn to page 209, and you'll find IBM senior engineer Robert Lloyd's sneering response ("What the hell is it good for?") to colleagues who had the audacity, back in 1968, to suggest that the microprocessor was the wave of the future.
Or leaf over to page 231 and consider the following paragraph from an August 1968 edition of BusinessWeek: "With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market for itself." It goes on like that for nearly 400 pages.
These examples came to mind as I spoke with this month's DC VELOCITY Thought Leader, Kevin Ashton (see page 29). The former head of MIT's Auto ID Center, Ashton almost seethes when you steer the conversation to what the "experts" on radio-frequency identification (RFID) are saying (which he clearly expects to read in a future edition of The Experts Speak.) He reserves particular scorn for the widespread claims that any kind of return on an RFID investment is still years away. "If you read the analysts' press releases, you're left with a very false impression that nobody has figured out RFID," he says. "They claim that there is no opportunity for a positive ROI with RFID as it exists today. But [that's] simply not true. … It's just that the people who have figured out the ROI aren't talking about it.Why would they?"
Why indeed? With RFID's potential to provide the kind of competitive advantage that sends competitors fleeing from the scene, it's hardly surprising that those who have "cracked the code" are keeping the news under wraps.
What really bothers Ashton, however, is the prospect that such pronouncements will dissuade companies from jumping in and dabbling with RFID, hiccups and all.Waiting around for the technology to be fully cooked would be a serious mistake, he says. "People set a terribly high bar for new technology," Ashton observes, "but that's unreasonable if you think about it. Take the cell phone, for example. Once in a while cell phones cut out or need to be recharged or simply won't work in a certain area, yet we still find them very valuable. I've never seen the wisdom of waiting until a new technology's perfected before allowing it into your environment. It isn't going to be perfect."
In Ashton's view, RFID is exactly where it should be when it comes to the development curve for a transforming technology. The technology now exists to encode volumes of data on a tiny chip that can beam information via radio waves to a reader. Not only does it exist, it works. New applications are being found almost every day. But it's important to keep in mind that those applications, as they relate to logistics, remain in a relatively nascent stage.
The companies that are "doing it right" where RFID implementation is concerned are taking it one step at a time. They're learning by doing, making sure everything they do is scalable, and learning from their mistakes and their failures. They're treating it as an opportunity, while accepting its limitations and maintaining realistic expectations.
The important thing, though, is they're trying. They're working with a new technology, trying to "crack the code." Right now, they are ahead of the pack. And that's seldom a bad place to be.