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RFID certification push may be premature, experts say

While industry players met last week to discuss the need for RFID skills, many CIOs still aren't sold on the technology. One analyst, however, said it's a mistake for some firms not to understand what RFID means to their business.

A shortage of IT pros with RFID skills has prompted a certification push from The Computing Technology Industry Association and The Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility. Nearly two dozen people representing RFID equipment manufacturers, systems integrators, training companies, and public and private sector end users met last week at CompTIA headquarters in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., to discuss the importance of vendor-neutral proof of RFID competency.

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Wal-Mart's top 100 suppliers are required to slap RFID tags on shipments beginning next month, and all of the retail leviathan's suppliers must be compliant by the end of 2006. The state of Florida, in an effort to ensure the pedigree of prescription drugs, will require pharmaceutical companies to be RFID-compliant by the end of 2006, and the Department of Defense has ordered all its suppliers -- some 40,000 companies -- to use RFID by 2010

With the clock ticking, and with RFID still a source of uncertainty or skepticism for many companies, it's little wonder the push has started for certification.

" We've seen a great deal of interest in having more people skilled in RFID," said David Sommer, vice president of electronic commerce at CompTIA. "There's a foundational need for RFID skills and vendors want a means to measure them."

According to CompTIA spokesman Steven Ostrowski, attendees agreed that any certification not only must be broad, it must be comprehensive enough to reach beyond "RFID 101" so companies hiring RFID pros, contractors or vendors know they're getting the skills they need.

Attendees also indicated that the range of skills needed may be so broad that multiple training and certifications for different constituencies may be required. Another idea being bandied about is a foundation-level RFID certification exam with industry-specific, technology-specific or application-specific certifications on top of them.

The next step is to form a committee to push a certification, Sommer said. He expects a credential to be ready by the end of next year. And he thinks certification is just one element of RFID that will make it appealing to CIOs who want to implement the technology to further their business.

"The cost continues to come down, standards are being worked out, and we're talking about a more skilled workforce -- we've made tremendous progress on all three elements in the last six months," he said.

Mike Anderson, IT director at International Paper -- Smart Packaging in Memphis, Tenn., an RFID solution provider, said a certification will make a huge difference in the RFID market.

"It will give businesses a comfort level that they don't have today," he said.

Robert A. Goodman, director of supply chain services and RFID specialist for Boston-based Yankee Group, also praised CompTIA and AIM Global's joint effort to hammer out RFID certifications. "There's such a wide array of components that fit into an RFID solution [that] any exercise in education is a good thing," he said.

In time, businesses may be concerned about RFID skills. But now doesn't seem to be the time. Although analysts with International Data Corp. have predicted the market for RFID consulting, implementation and managed services is expected to grow by 47% in 2004 and reach $2 billion worldwide by 2008, many CIOs still aren't sold on the overall value of the technology.

Many companies are doing what they need to do, but the jury is still out on the business benefits.
Robert Goodman
RFID AnalystYankee Group

"Many companies are doing what they need to do, but the jury is still out on the business benefits," Goodman said.

But some firms are already looking into RFID as a business opportunity.

Owens & Minor Inc., a distributor of medical and surgical supplies, wanted to know the opportunities real-time tracking could bring to its business, which deals with expensive medical equipment. The Glen Allen, Va., company has done a pilot project with one of its top customers, and it's been a real learning experience for CIO David Guzman. The effect of RFID on legacy applications has proved to be the biggest frustration.

"This is by far the most expensive, time consuming and risky part of an RFID implementation -- most business cases miss the millions of dollars and years of time necessary to change legacy applications to take full advantage of RFID," he said. "We've had to build a very costly status tracking application."

Guzman doesn't think RFID in its present form will even be around for long.

"I believe [It's a] transitory technology," he said. "Ultimately, it will be replaced a technology already in place -- the Internet Protocol."

Other CIOs have too many other things on their plates. Ann Franks, vice president of IT at Atlanta-based Lanier Worldwide Inc., said that her document management firm has been on the bleeding edge of technology before, but not when it comes to RFID.

"At some point in the future we'll be looking at it," she said. "Right now, there are still too many questions."

"We're all guessing at this," said Cathy Hotka, principal of Cathy Hotka & Associates, a retail IT consultancy based in Washington. She said many CIOs feel that RFID is a technology that raises more questions than answers.

"They're not dismissive, but anything that looks like it won't mature for several years isn't going to engage CIOs," she said. "No one is quite sure what the killer reason would be -- it's just too soon."

Yankee's Goodman thinks small companies can afford to fold their arms and wait until RFID is a little more tested. But large firms can't afford to merely watch from the sidelines.

"Large companies need to be doing something now and understanding what RFID means to their business," he said. If they're waiting now, they're making a mistake."

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