Thursday, June 11, 2009

August 23, 2006: Service Science as an Academic Discipline (according to IBM)

A former colleague was kind enough to point me at the Web page for a Symposium on "Services Sciences, Management and Engineering" hosted by the IBM Tokyo Research Laboratory on September 8, 2005. He also pointed out that, if one followed the link to the Japanese content, one could find a PDF version of the presentation given by James Spohrer from IBM Almaden Services Research. My colleague had not know that I had "vented" about my experience at Almaden in March of 2004 in the June 25 entry for this blog. Obviously, I was very curious to see if the story had improved at all since my last encounter with the IBM point of view. Having now reviewed the material, my personal opinion is that there is a lot more content but not a lot of improvement. Obviously, I want to elaborate on this!

Apparently, the first step in declaring a "Service Science" is to come up with a definition for it. This is the first one that was presented to the Symposium audience:

The application of scientific, management, and engineering disciplines to tasks that one organization beneficially performs for and with another (‘services’)

I have to say that I think that describing "services" as "tasks that one organization beneficially performs for and with another" is not a bad idea. I just wish that Spohrer had taken it more seriously. The rest of the slides had a very prescriptive tone, but there seemed to be a tacit assumption that benefit would arises as a side-effect of all the recommendations being prescribed. I think this is not just silly but dangerous. My own experience has led me to the conviction that any enterprise that is serious about being a service provider must assign top priority to looking for new opportunities to provide benefits to the customer. Once you get beyond theory into the realities of practice, this priority trumps the "coproduction of value," a buzz phrase that sounded great the first time I saw it in the Harvard Business Review but has begun to grate on my nerves the more I hear it. Value is the side-effect of understanding where the benefits are, not the other way around.

So how do you understand where the benefits are? The first step is to cultivate the art of customer engagement. However, as I have already observed, our techno-centric fixations with such "solutions" as CRM have done little more than warp our ability to master this art. Thinking in terms of science, management, or engineering seems to have done little more than reduce the customer to an object with requirements to be satisfied. This is the heart of the warped thinking that results: The customer must be engaged as a subject; and, as one understands customer-as-subject, one will understand where the opportunities for benefit are. Understanding is the operative action here (and it should be treated as an action, rather than a result of analysis). This is why my entry about service on June 17 was such a desperate attempt to invoke the lessons that Habermas had to teach about a theoretical foundation for the actions that lead to achieving understanding. Furthermore, the progression from engagement to opportunities for benefit is essential a problem of interpretation. Customer engagement provides the opportunity to "interpret the customer;" but it is also necessary to "interpret the world" that constitutes the customer's context. Now, when Spohrer's presentation finally gets around to proposing a curriculum, the unhappy truth about what is on his slide is that, while all of the subject areas have to do with decision making, none of them have to do with interpreting that "world" in which the decisions have to be made! To use the language I have appropriated from Kenneth Burke, to think of decision making as a strictly scientific problem and to ignore the role that dramatistic thinking and acting plays is dangerous. It is like the blind man who thinks that feeling an elephant's leg is enough to understand the whole elephant.

At this point I should observe that one theme that plays a very heavy role in Spohrer's slides involves the word "innovation." Perhaps this obsession gets at why a research laboratory with its roots in physics and computer science (the way in which the slides introduce IBM Research) will never understand what makes service "work." Yes, innovation is a term in the equation, so to speak; but it is an auxiliary term. A service provider arrives at innovation by focusing on how to get customer engagement and benefit discovery right; and what could be more innovative than identifying an opportunity for benefit that the competition has either ignored or overlooked?

If we do want to talk about where innovation enters the picture, a good place to begin is probably a book by Alain Dumont entitled, Innover dans les service (published, alas, only in French). This is a book of case studies, so there is not much prescription here. On the other hand Dumont at least came up with an inspiring subtitle: De l'évident à l'impensable. In this language one might say that customer engagement begins by "interpreting the evident" and arrives at opportunities for benefit by following the interpretation through to the "unthinkable" (or at least the not-previously-thought). Now, since this book was published in 2001, there probably are no case studies that would still seem "unthinkable;" and, for any of these case studies, it will not be easy to reconstruct the mind-set of what was "evident" at the beginning of the story. Nevertheless, I think Dumont is on to something.

At the end of the day, any business that decides it want to make the shift from providing products to providing services is going to have to recognize that a cultural shift is prerequisite. The real problem with the IBM slides is that they offer an alternative to making that cultural shift, but it is a false alternative. You know how bad things are when you look at that list of 28 disciplines that get "mapped" on slide 8 (pictured above). Note that Education is at the very bottom of the list, yet that is probably the oldest (or second-oldest) service profession in history! I suppose I would even be so arrogant as to proclaim that anyone who does not acknowledge education as the most important service offering in history does not have the foggiest idea of what service really is!

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