A time and need for service innovation, education

The vision behind Service Science is to build a coherent body of knowledge for service innovation, says IBM's Jim Spohrer.
Written by James C. Spohrer, IBM, Contributor
Commentary--Services make the world go around. In modern day society, we are all connected to each other by either giving or receiving a service.

At first glance, our daily service interactions almost seem invisible.

From the moment we turn a light switch on in the morning (electric utility service), to beginning a morning commute (transportation service), to interacting with colleagues at work (communication service often by email and telephone), to buying a quart of milk on the way home (retail service), to meeting with retirement planning advisor in the evening (financial services), or going out to a restaurant with a spouse (entertainment service), we are all actively engaging in service interactions--at a count of forty times a day. Often, we only become aware of these individual interactions when there is a disruption.

As the world continues changing, one thing is clear. The rise of service systems will exponentially grow, thus increasing our involvement. Acting as a magnet, technology is connecting trillions of people, businesses and products together to form agile, interconnected service networks. Just as the agrarian markets shifted to the manufacturing markets over the last two hundred years, the shift to a services-driven economy is happening all over the world.

With this symbolic shift, comes increased responsibility. There is a need to formally understand how service systems interact, and how they succeed. How can service system activities be refined to determine competitive advantage? This means acquiring an understanding that both the provider and customer are acting as service systems and that they must coordinate interactions to create value. But at this point, so much is unknown in this field. A new way of understanding the scale, complexity and interdependence of service systems is needed to solve the knowledge gap that exists in society today.

Last month, Cambridge University and IBM released the findings of a whitepaper, entitled “Succeeding Through Service Innovation,” which calls for the need for government, business, researchers and academia to fund the development and study of an integrated theory of service systems. More than twenty-five global leaders in business, academic and government collaborated on this paper, signaling the call to action for the establishment of a new, interdisciplinary curriculum called Service Science Management and Engineering (SSME) globally.

SSME is the study of service systems (entities) that interact via value propositions (interactions) to achieve value (outcomes). The vision behind Service Science is to build a coherent body of knowledge for service innovation.

But even as over a hundred universities in more than forty countries around the world are working to establish SSME-related programs, many people remain unconvinced that this emerging area can really succeed in creating a unique and deep body of knowledge, set of tools, and profession that is not already addressed by an existing discipline or profession. Established disciplines such as operations research, systems engineering, management of information systems (MIS), economics and law, and organization theory, as well as others, point out "We are already doing scientific studies of service systems and their value creating interactions." So what's missing?

There are, in fact, two things missing. First, most of these disciplines are not focused on the study of service systems. Second, there is the belief that a deeper integration of study is possible. A few times in the history of science, tremendous progress has been made when things that had been studied independently have yielded to a new unified framework.

Looking back at IBM’s partnership with academia, IBM and researchers from Columbia University helped spur the creation and development of computer science as a new academic discipline back in the 1940’s when there was little knowledge or understanding about computational systems. The climate for change back then is exactly the same as it is now.

In the 21st century, globalization is making the call for service innovation a priority. Innovation will differentiate one country from the next, as well as one economy from the next. Those equipped with the right skills will set and lead the innovation agenda.

Without a formal process to study service systems, knowledge cannot translate into understanding. Service Science has the potential to be as important as the foundation provided by physics, chemistry, biology, cognitive science and computer science for the modern world. We just have to work as a community to embrace this thought and establish the right foundations and frameworks together.

Jim Spohrer, director of Service Research at IBM Research center in Almaden.

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