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Socio-Technical Challenges of RFID Essay

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, which consist of silicon chips and an antenna that can transmit data to a wireless receiver, could be used to track everything from toothpaste to sneakers. RFID can provide much more detailed information on what the product is, where it’s going, and how to handle it adding that the information could be critical for future regulatory compliance requirements.

The basic RFID system consists of three basic components: an antenna or coil, a transceiver (with decoder), a transponder (RF tag) electronically programmed with unique information. Although it uses a very simple idea, RFID involves a complicated process in translating or transmitting information. A reader/interrogator/scanner transmits an RF wave to a tag. The tag “hears” the RF wave, and responds with some data (Intermec, 2007).

RFID enables pallets of products to pass through a stationary portal reader and the information is automatically captured. This automated process requires less human intervention in the data capturing process resulting in minimal human error. This however is faced with challenges of location and space. Improper positioning of the RFID devices lends difficulty in sending and retrieving information in RFID tags (Dennison, 2008).

The implementation of RFID would affect all the components of the organizational socio-technical system. Technology-wise, the current information technology system including hardware, software programs, designs and processes, and outcomes, most of which may not be compatible with RFID requirements have to be enhanced or even totally scrapped. There would be a very small percentage of the system that will be deemed re-usable for RFID purposes. In fact, the whole data and storage structure may need overall reconfiguration.

Successful implementation being heavily dependent on the proper location and arrangement of RFID enabled machines, the physical environment including movement of people, machines and objects have to be modified and coordinated. The people that make up the organization will be introduced to new processes and protocols that may engender malaise, fear or distrust on one end, or hope and unity on the other. Decision-making processes also have to be re-structured.

Another socio-technical component that an organization has to address with the implementation of RFID is the observance of existing laws, rules, and guidelines regarding the technology.

RFID is seen to impact an organization’s supply chain management which includes various functions such as forecasting, planning, sourcing, purchasing and procurement, production, inventory management, distribution, and all logistics management activities (Intermec, 2007).

These functions encompass a wide range of activities and functions which not only involve internal units (from the company leaders to the supply manager to the warehousemen, gatekeepers and security people), but also organizational partners including suppliers, intermediaries, third party entities, and the government, among others. RFID will radically alter the company’s distribution network configuration, distribution strategy and information processes.

In healthcare settings where RFID is slowly being integrated in patient management, personnel administration and inventory – it could track not only drug and medical supplies but also patient’s medical data and the location and availability of medical personnel (Fisher and Monahan, 2008), it could spell far-reaching consequences in accountability and decision-making.

Although RFID has great potential for effective and efficient management, the very complexity of healthcare activities, structures, and inter-relationships of key actors and stakeholders which surpasses that of even the largest of warehouses and most intricate business chains presents pressing difficulties in proper implementation. Contrary to expectations that information technology will facilitate communication and coordination among the members of the organization, it may complicate work relationships and system processes if not properly implemented.

On a socio-cultural standpoint, it is widely asserted that new technology could engender some form of value mismatch or worse, even exacerbate whatever existing cultural conflicts there are in the organization. Apprehensions of new technology and new processes may be in the minds of managers who are comfortable with how the organization is performing (Deloitte, 2004).  Further, among the rank and file, distrust, agitation and anxiety may worsen, congruent te findings of Fisher and Monahan (2008) among nurses in hospitals that have implemented RFID.

The privacy issue would necessarily emerge. Concomitant responsibility to protect patient’s identity and medical information presents serious security risks. If all medical information could be stored in a single computer microchip, loss of the chip would jeopardize not only the patient but the hospital operations. However, it is noted by technological experts that RFID technical robustness is very difficult to defeat (Intermec, 2007).

Also, since RFID technology is very expensive, the additional financial burden may cause ripple effects in other organizational components. For example, since RFID could reduce manpower need, the reduced financial capability would further justify streamlining of the organization’s workforce resulting in job loss.

The implementation of RFID requires drastic changes in managerial structures, reporting relations, and operating procedures. Since it encompasses a substantial part of organizational functioning, a single error would result in problems of sizeable proportion. For instance, an inaccurate data input for patient medical needs may result in erroneous dosage administration which could cause irreversible damage. A miniscule of error in data processing or wrong positioning of the machine readers could cause incalculable damage especially if undetected for a long time.

Therefore, aside from proper orientation and training of all those involved, internal control mechanisms should be judiciously implemented. RFID hardware and software standards should be strictly observed and extreme care and caution among the machine operators, readers and medical practitioners. Of course, it is banal to say that this entails astute managerial skill. Regular safety and management audits should be performed should therefore be performed.

RFID requires a large amount of complex data but not every information is required (Intermec, 2007, 7) hence there must be proper coordination between the planners, data collectors and information users, otherwise it will result in needless processing, defeating the purpose of the technology.

Gleaning from the recommendations of Intermec (2007), RFID implementation would be more efficacious when the following are considered:

Initial implementation be focused on key areas where accuracy of operations and “manual handling” are most needed;
Organizational analysis to determine the extent of RFID implementation;
Conduct of a pilot implementation and evaluation of its effects and nuances to other organizational operations;
Appropriateness of RFID technology to organizational needs;
Sourcing external help for professional expertise;
In the end, the considerable benefits that can be gained from RFID would be optimized.


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