Steve's Blog

The Mystery of "Service Science"

Author: Stephen J. Turnbull
Organization: Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems at the University of Tsukuba
Contact: Stephen J. Turnbull <>
Copyright: 2012 Stephen J. Turnbull
Date: 2012/09/02

Some of my colleagues research "service science." IBM does consulting based on "service science." But nobody can tell me what service science is. Not even the VP of R&D at IBM! (Granted, that was about 5 years ago. Still, she was speaking on "service science" in an academic seminar!)

It's not hard to come up with a concise and satisfactory definition of "service" (for use in business studies and economics). Mine is "an activity by one agent which creates non-storable value for others." Obviously, that's concise. It's not obvious that it's satisfactory, but I believe that everything needed to understand why services differ from other products from the point of view of business and economics is implicit in it. So let's see if we can hack up a definition of "service science" based on that definition of "service."

The easy part is to notice that services are non-storable. This means that the provider and the user must meet at some place and time. (Modern telecommunications such as the Internet relax the constraint on meeting in one place to "being connected" for some products, but the constraint of simultaneity can't be relaxed by definition, at least until time travel is invented.) Since you can't always guarantee availability of a provider or user at any given time, you end up with low utilization rates for the provider, queueing for the user, or both. These issues of "waiting to meet" are fairly well-understood, and treated by "classical" fields of industrial engineering such as logistics and queueing theory. But these are not (by themselves) enough to justify speaking of "service science." After all, they already have their own names.

The parenthetical remark provides a clue. Many of the important innovations of the last few decades have involved substituting telecommunication for actual meeting: Internet games, groupware, cloud computing, social networking, and the World Wide Web are just a few examples, and various business networks are also becoming huge businesses. Others are enabled by telecommunication, such as the logistics companies which have reduced the costs of scheduling huge numbers of shipments and the vehicles that transport them to manageable levels by application of information technology, and on the other hand have boosted consumer satisfaction simply by opening up the shipment tracking systems to users who don't need to know, but knowing sure makes them feel better! One principle of service science is to exploit the virtual world to improve services in the real one.

There's a second idea already mentioned. That is the creation of new services that the users don't know are possible, such as access to package tracking information via the Internet. But such serendipity is rare, and doesn't directly point to a principle for discovering them. I think the hint here is in the definition of "service," that it creates value. Specifically, for users. While in this age of nanotechnology and galactic black holes it may no longer be true that man is the measure of all things, it remains true that human beings are the only useful judges of values.

One of the great opportunities for service providers is that humans may be the only judges of value, but they're often not very good at it. The extreme example is medical services. The patient rarely knows what he needs; he only knows that he hurts and wants it fixed. In some cases, he doesn't even hurt (that's why employers and schools require routine physical examinations). They need to be told by the doctor. But this creates a problem: the doctor doesn't feel the pain, and to be a good doctor, she must detach herself from that pain. It's not obvious that doctors are good judges of value for their patients. It's also not obvious that patients are good judges of value, even with the advice of an excellent and unusually empathetic physician. They tend to judge value by the realized outcome, while the doctor must make decisions based on statistics. There is an opportunity here based on making doctor evaluations more congruent with patient values, and demonstrating that to the patient. Even if things go sideways despite the best efforts of the clinical staff, at least the patient can be satisfied that they got the best service available, and that their suffering is an act of God, not due to the incompetence or negligence of a doctor.

Another opportunity for service providers is based on engineering the process to deliver services accurately tuned to user needs. In other words, to incorporate improved communication between provider and user in the service delivery process itself.

Combining these various aspects of service improvement, we might define "service science" to be "the field that studies ways in which the process of delivering a service can be optimized either using existing processes or via virtualization, and improves measurement of individual variation in value perceptions and value creation so that the service provided can be better tuned to individual needs." Implicitly, I suppose we may assume that these improvements are implemented via use of information and communication technology.

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Stephen J. Turnbull