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.

Here is an excerpt from Part 1 of my interview of Mark. To read all of Part 1, please click here.

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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.

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To read all of Part 1, 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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