By clicking “Accept All Cookies,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation and analyze site usage.

Skip to main content

The Continuing Evolution of Service Science

August 08, 2016


Service Science emerged in the mid-2000s as an academic discipline aimed at applying technology and science to the service sector – by far the largest sector of the U.S. economy and of most economies around the world.  Since its inception, IBM has played a major role in the continuing evolution of service science, coining the term Service Science, Management and Engineering (SSME) to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of this emerging discipline.  I was personally involved in these efforts during my last few years at IBM. Subsequently, it’s continued to be one of the main subjects I’ve talked about in seminars and written about inthis blog.

[Recently], I had an interesting conversation on the the state of service science with analysts from an IT research organization who were preparing a report on the subject for their clients.  Our discussion led me to reflect on the evolution of service science over the past several years.  I think that we are hearing a bit less about it these days.  But is that because we’ve become tired of the subject and moved on, or because the application of science and technology to services is now so well accepted that it’s no longer a topic of debate? I very much think it’s the latter.

The service sector is by far the largest in the global economy, comprising close to 65 percent of the world’s overall GDP, and between 70 and 80 percent in the more advanced economies.  Most of the working population in such countries are employed in services in one way or another, – roughly two thirds of all jobs in Brazil, Japan and the European Union and around 80 percent in the U.K. and the U.S.

In July of 2009, the U.K.’s Royal Society released a report –  Hidden Wealth: the contribution of science to service sector innovation.  “Our main conclusion,…” said the report, “is that services are very likely to remain central to the new economy, not least because we are at or near a tipping point: innovations now underway seem likely to change dramatically the way we live and to generate many services (though few can be predicted in detail at present).”

According to the study, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is omnipresent in the service sector, but, unlike the case with the industrial sector, its impact is rarely recognized.

“Scientific and technological developments (many of which originated in fundamental blue skies research), have precipitated major transformations in services industries and public services, most notably through the advent of the internet and world-wide-web… However, the full extent of STEM’s current contribution is hidden from view – it is not easily visible to those outside the process and is consequently under-appreciated by the service sector, policymakers and the academic research community.  This blind spot threatens to hinder the development of effective innovation policies and the development of new business models and practices…”

The study used Hidden Wealth in its title to make the point that even though services constitute such a large portion of GDP and of jobs around the world, their very nature remains vague – a kind of hard-to-measuredark matter.  Services are ubiquitous across many sectors of the economy, e.g., finance, healthcare, retail, creative industries, business support, education and transportation and logistics.  However, they’re neither easily visible nor well understood.

It’s often easier to define the service sector by what it doesn’t include: it’s not agriculture or fishing, and it’s not manufacturing, construction or mining.  Just about every other job is in services, including manual ones like janitors, gardeners, restaurant employees and health care aides, and white collar ones like sales and office workers, managers and professionals.  Perhaps, the one definition everyone can agree to is one attributed toThe Economist: a service is “anything sold in trade that cannot be dropped on your foot.”

We’ve been applying science and technology to the agriculture and industrial sectors of the economy ever since the advent of the Industrial Revolution over two hundred years ago.  But until recently it’s been difficult for universities, companies and policy makers to support the same  kind of research and education programs in the service sector.  This has all been changing.  Services are now front and center in some of the most prominent areas in IT, such as analytics and data science, cloud computing, and design thinking.  Let me say a few words about each.

Analytics and Data Science

“This is the first time in human history that we have the ability to see enough about ourselves that we can hope to actually build social systems that work qualitatively better than the systems we’ve always had,” said MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland in an online conversation, Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data.

“I believe that the power of Big Data is that it’s information about people’s behavior – it’s about customers, employees, and prospects for your new business . . .  This Big Data comes from location data from your cell phone and transaction data about the things you buy with your credit card.  It’s the little data breadcrumbs that you leave behind you as you move around in the world… and by analyzing this sort of data, scientists can tell an enormous amount about you.  They can tell whether you are the sort of person who will pay back loans.  They can tell you if you’re likely to get diabetes.”

Throughout history, scientific revolutions have been launched when new tools make possible new measurements and observations, e.g., the telescope, the microscope, spectrometers, DNA sequencers.   Over the past few hundred years, we’ve significantly increased our understanding of the natural world around us by collecting large amounts of data and by developing disciplined ways to analyze and make sense of all that data.

Our new big data tools now have the potential to usher an information-based scientific revolution, helping us extract insights from all the data we’re now collecting by applying tried-and-true scientific methods, that is, empirical and measurable evidence subject to testable explanations and predictions.  We’ve long been applying scientific methods in the natural sciences and engineering.  But given our new-found ability to gather valuable data on almost any area of interest, we can now bring out tried-and-true scientific methods to just about any domain of knowledge.  This should enable us to better understand and make predictions in complex, people-centric, service-oriented systems like healthcare, business organizations, government agencies and cities.

Cloud Computing

As technologies become ubiquitous in society, – electricity, telephones, cars, TVs, computer – a much moredisciplined, engineering oriented approach is needed in how they are generated, delivered and consumed. With the rise of cloud computing, IT has been going through a similar transformation.

Cloud computing is essentially the Internet of ServicesData centers have now become the production plantsof cloud-based services.  Software and information are increasingly being delivered as industrial-scale online services, while the Internet and wireless networks connect more and more devices to such offerings.

Cloud computing requires well-engineered infrastructures, applications and services, a transformation that’s been pioneered by born-to-the-cloud companies like Amazon, Google, and Salesforce.  The architectural standards and management disciplines of public cloud providers have been increasingly embraced by many other companies, so they too can efficiently deliver high quality services to their own customers, business partners and employees.

Design Thinking

High quality and competitive costs are the key objectives of good products.  But services are all about people, as consumers and/or providers of the service.  In addition to high quality and competitive costs, achieving asuperior customer experience is now a top priority across all industries given the growth of services throughout the economy.

It’s much easier to appreciate the role of design when it comes to physical objects: cars, bridges, buildings, dresses, shoes, jewelry, smartphones, laptops, and so on.  But, it’s considerably harder to appreciate its importance when it comes to more abstract entities like services, systems, information and organizations.  Yet, they account for the bulk of the growing complexity in our daily lives.

Design thinking is all about having positive service experiences with the companies we do business with.  Good design aims to make our interactions with complex institutions, – e.g., a business, a healthcare provider, a government function, – as appealing and intuitive as possible.  Design-centric organizations are adamantly focused on their customers’ needs.

We may not be hearing as much about service science because, in a sense, the battle has been won.  The technologies, methods and concepts once pioneered in service science are now well accepted in mainstream IT and academic disciplines.  We still have much to do, but we no longer have to argue that science, engineering and design now play a prominent role in services all across the economy.


This blog war first posted on July 26, 2016, here.