Mark Roberti on Big Data and RFID: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

RobertiMark Roberti has reported on business for major publications worldwide since 1985. In 2002, he launched RFID Journal on the Web as an independent source of news and information for business and IT executives looking to tap RFID’s enormous potential. He is widely regarded as a thought leader in the RFID industry. Previously, he was managing editor at Information Week, then owned by CMP Media, which has since become four separate companies. Before that, he was a reporter at Asiaweek, I covering political and business in Hong Kong. He also was an editor at Asian Finance. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Hofstra University.

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Morris: Before discussing RFID, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Roberti: The biggest influence was probably Sam Toperoff, a novelist who taught a humanities course I took in college. He said many profound things in the course of teaching us about Greece and Rome, but the main thing he did was give me the confidence to be myself and trust myself as a person and a writer.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Roberti: Julia Markus, another novelist. I studied creative writing at Hofstra University, and the vast majority of courses I took were with Julia. She taught me how to tell a story, which is important, and she helped me find my voice as a writer. While I have never written a novel, the ability to tell a story in your own voice is very important for journalists.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Roberti: There was an epiphany. It occurred in 1992 at a Pacific Asia Travel Association. A writer who was talking about technology’s impact on the travel industry talked about the Internet. I had never heard the term before, but I was blown away by the vision of all computers being networked and Web sites where you could get information. I immediately changed directions and started writing about business technology, rather than just business.

Eight years later, I went to MIT and met Dr. Sanjay Sarma and Kevin Ashton, who presented a view of the Internet of Things — connecting objects to the Internet by putting low-cost RFID transponders on them. This would enable them to be tracked and managed automatically by computer systems. I had the same feeling I had when I first heard about the Internet. This time, I decided that I would provide information to help companies leverage this emerging technology and within a year I had launched RFID Journal out of a spare bedroom in my home.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Roberti: Not much, in all honesty. I was not a journalism major, and I never studied business or technology. Most of what I do I learned by jumping into the deep end and figuring it out.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Roberti: I wish I knew that I was as capable as anyone out there. Most of the mistakes I’ve made were because I didn’t trust myself. I think most young people doubt themselves. We assume someone who has become a CEO or is wealthy knows a lot. Turns out, some people are great, and you need to listen to them and learn from them. And some people are not so good at what they do (even if they have been successful) and you need to evaluate what they tell you and discount it if you think it’s wrong. That’s not easy when you are starting out on your own and don’t have a lot of experience.

Morris: From which business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Roberti: Without a doubt Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. For years I was frustrated by the fact that companies that could benefit from RFID had no interest in it. After reading Moore’s book, I began to understand how new technologies are adopted, why companies don’t rush to deploy them and what companies need to do to get a new technology across the chasm.

Since reading the book, my approach to marketing and selling has been different. We’ve focused on trying to help each potential user of RFID find the right solution because each one gets you closer to critical mass and the other side of the chasm. Unfortunately, the vast majority of RFID companies either don’t understand Geoffrey Moore or don’t want to follow his advice, and that has slowed adoption.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Roberti: I think this is a very apt quote, and one that many people will say they agree with but ignore. As a leader, you need to be humble. You need to understand you don’t know everything. You need to listen, and you need to make people feel valued. We write about RFID deployments and many companies want to force the technology on people. This never works. You need to say: “This new technology could help use be more efficient. How do you think we should use it?” People will then embrace it and give you some great ideas for how to take advantage of it.

I will say that there are times when a leader has to go against everyone’s advice and do what he or she believes is right. If you are a good leader who has been respectful of employees, they will be unhappy but they will go along knowing that you must feel strongly to go against their advice.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Roberti: This is so true it has become a cliché. Most people, including most business people, can only see the world as it is, not as it will be. And when they are presented with a radical idea whose time has come, they resist. Later, it becomes part of the way they live or do business. I remember many CEOs heaping scorn on the Internet. Who needs it? Later, when Wall Street started asking them about their Internet strategy, they started throwing millions of dollars at Internet technology providers. The same thing will happen with RFID.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Roberti: I love this quote. Many people dream up stuff, but if you can’t turn it into a reality, what’s the value? Execution is the hard part. Creating a company, marketing, delivering value to customers — these things are hard. It’s surprising that so many companies can create good products but so few companies achieve a high level of execution.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Roberti: This quote makes me think of the fixation many companies have on the price of RFID tags. I tell them the price doesn’t matter, and they think I’m crazy. But if a tag costs 1 cent and brings no value, then it is not worth using. On the other hand, if an RFID tag costs $1 and it brings you $3 worth of value then it is worth using. You need to focus on what really matters.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Roberti: Great organizational judgment is a product of great leadership. You can’t have it if you have a CEO, or even a department head, who is insecure and hires second-rate people who will agree with him/her. You can’t have it if the leader thinks he/she knows everything and doesn’t listen to people. Organizational judgment comes from leaders who understand they don’t know everything and hire good people to provide good advice. We often have conversations in my company where someone brings up points of view that I had not thought of. No one on my team is afraid to speak his/her mind or to tell me I’m wrong.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Roberti: I have never dealt with a company that is willing to test its deeply held assumptions, and I see very few companies willing to make mistakes. What I see, frankly, are companies that refuse to look at the world objectively and see evidence that their assumptions are wrong.

I see companies that say they love Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, and then fail to pursue a path dictated by the book’s conclusion. Hell, I know one company that hired Geoffrey Moore to come and speak to top executives and they are making the exact mistake — not supporting a newly launched product (in this case an RFID product) — that Moore describes in his latest book Escape Velocity.

Companies are sitting on piles of cash right now. They should be testing new technologies to see which can deliver value. They could be testing new business models enabled by new technologies. They could be creating exciting new products using new technologies, yet most are not. Most are looking to buy some other company that will add to their bottom line without them having to do anything more difficult than arranging financing.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Roberti: I’ve run across CEOs that think they know everything and want to control everything. They don’t listen to employees and partners. They believe that they are smarter than others and therefore their way must be better. It’s easy to fall into this trap.

Being successful generates feelings of self-importance and superiority. You say to yourself, if employees knew as much as I know they would start their own company. It’s self-aggrandizing and wrong-headed. If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur you need to realize that you don’t know everything and understand that while you might be better at running a business then your employees, each of them has their own talent and their own knowledge of the area they are responsible for.

Other CEOs I’ve seen are good at throwing out ideas and then staff run around trying to make them all happen. This inevitably leads to bad execution and failure. But I think it makes some people feel good to throw out a lot of ideas. “Look how smart I am.” They are not focused on the goal, which is growing the company, and that goes back to Drucker’s quote about doing useless stuff. Just because the CEO dreamt it up, doesn’t mean we should do it.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Roberti: I don’t know if that’s true but I do know that a leader has to be able to communicate where we are going and what our strategy is for getting there. He/she has to make adjustments along the way, and he has to communicate those adjustments. And he/she needs to admit when there was a setback, admit when the strategy isn’t working, ask for help when appropriate and keep moving forward. There are many people with talent who lack the ability to communicate a coherent strategy.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Roberti: I don’t think people are resident to change. I think they are resistant to change being forced upon them and perhaps to change for change’s sake. If you go to a group in a warehouse and say: “We’ve got to get our inventory accuracy up and improve our pick-to-ship time,” people hear: “You are doing a poor job and we need to bring in this technology to fix things.” They naturally reject the technology, because it’s a threat to them. If the project fails, they can say: “See, we’ve been doing the best that can be done.”

If you say to the warehouse team “We have this new technology called RFID which enables you to read things much faster than you can read a bar code — how do you think you might use it to make your job easier” they will come up with plenty of ideas and they will embrace change. It goes back to the quote from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism, of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Roberti: In 1998, I took a course for journalists at the Wharton Business School. It was fabulous. I learned a lot, and it helped me understand the role of technology in business. I said to one of the professors: “This was great and I’m sure your MBA program is just as great. So why are most businesses so poorly run.” He said: “Running a business is hard.” True, but we’ve been working at this for a long time. You’d think companies could do a better job of it.

My advice would be that if you want to be in business, you need to get a degree in psychology and undergo four years of psychotherapy until you become a self-actualized human being with a very small ego and a big capacity for learning and listening. If you get through that part and pass a battery of tests that say you are free of basic insecurities and understand people and how to motivate them, then we will teach you how to run a business, but not until then. I know this will never happen, so 500 years from now, we’ll still have poorly run companies.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Roberti: The biggest challenge will be the accelerating pace of change. The New York Times ran a story recently called “Welcome to the Failure Age!” The article states: “The life span of an innovation, in fact, has never been shorter. An African hand ax from 285,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 250,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death. During the Middle Ages, amid major advances in agriculture, warfare and building technology, the failure loop closed to less than a century. During the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about a lifetime. By the 20th century, it could be measured in decades. Today, it is best measured in years and, for some products, even less.”

This pace of innovation means a company that develops a successful product might be out of business within a decade. Look at Blackberry and what it’s going through. This means we have to be constantly innovating and not trying to protect products that will soon be obsolete. Think of Apple. Jobs saw that phones would be able to store songs, which threatened iPod sales. He didn’t try to stop that; he developed the iPhone. We also have to be aware that the infrastructure we invest in needs to be constantly updated. That’s a challenge because it brings constant change to the organization and continual investments.

My advice: Embrace change and have the courage to undercut one product with another. Disrupt yourself or be disrupted by someone else.

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To read Part 2, please click here.

Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

RFID Journal link

rfidconnect link

AIM Global link

GS1 link

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1 Comment

  1. Philip Calderbank on December 1, 2014 at 9:50 am

    Great interview. Questions well researched and Mark gave insightful answers.

    Has given me a lot of food for thought.

    N.B. I have a speech to give on RFID in Spain within the next two weeks. I will use some of the quotes..

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