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Service as Science

April 4, 2007


In hard science fields like math and physics, snickers are often heard whenever political “science” or social “science” are mentioned. Those softer sciences are about to be joined by a new discipline “service science.” Steve Lohr, writing in the New York Times, reports that a group of large technology companies, universities and professional associations have recently formed “a new organization to support and promote research into ways that technology can increase productivity and innovation in the economy’s service sector.” [“New Efforts to Tap Technology to Aid the Service Economy,” 28 March 2007]. This new discipline, according to Lohr, blends both hard and soft sciences.

“The creation of the organization, the Service Research and Innovation Initiative … represents the latest step by technology companies and some universities to promote an emerging field that is being called ‘service science.’ The early academic programs are a blend of computing, social sciences, engineering and management. The aim of service science is to try to improve productivity and accelerate the development of new offerings in services, which account for about 80 percent of the United States economy and similarly large shares of other Western economies. In the last couple of years, more than three dozen universities in several countries have added service science courses, and the National Science Foundation has begun financing a few service research projects.”

Corporations sponsoring the Service Research and Innovation Initiative represent a who’s who list of well-known companies: Accenture, Cisco, Computer Sciences, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Xerox. The list of universities from which academic supporters come is also impressive including UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Arizona State. The new initiative also has an international flavor with the European Commission and the Fraunhofer Institute, a German research organization, having members who serve on the advisory committee. Finally, practitioners are represented by the Technology Professional Services Association and the Service and Support Professionals Association, with the latter organization providing the executive director of the new initiative, Thomas W. Pridham.

“J. B. Wood, the chief executive of both the longstanding professional groups, said the purpose of the new effort was to have a neutral, nonprofit professional organization around which to build a community of common interest. ‘The investment in research by companies and the government has driven so much innovation on the hardware side of information technology,’ Mr. Wood said. ‘We think there is a similar opportunity in services.’ The new organization, according to Mr. Pridham, will provide a forum for collaboration to help set research priorities, pool corporate funds to support academic programs, and advise the government on preferred targets of basic research.”

The Service Research and Innovation Initiative is trying to do for “service science” what I hope the Institute for Advanced Technologies in Global Resilience does for global resilience. I would love to have the corporate backing the initiative enjoys. I guess you could call it funding envy. I anticipate that some of the findings generated by the initiative will, in fact, find a rightful place in helping make the global economy more resilient. The U.S. and much of the rest of the developed world have been living with a service economy for a number of years — even as they decry the loss of manufacturing jobs. Hopefully, the new Initiative will help the education system understand what skills students need to be taught before they enter the work force and help U.S. workers learn to flourish in this economy.

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