Wednesday, August 31, 2005


services as commodities

What do people want from services? We live in an increasingly post-material age, where services are the dominant "stuff" we consume (if we look at our spending). There is a lot of money to be made for companies that offer services they way people want them. The questions is, what matters most to people? Do we want services to be special, satisfying, cheap, reliable, flexible...?

Designers are beginning to look at "service design" as a design discipline, focusing on making services special (experiential), user-responsive, and coherent. The logic of service as a design discipline holds that if people spend a lot on services, they surely must want to obtain a unique experience for their spending.

Business, it would seem, have little enthusiasm for considering service a delicate object, to be dressed up into something special. In the view of business, service is an economic liability that needs to be tamed.

IBM is leading the charge. Paul Horn, SVP for research at IBM: "The next big thing is in the general area of something called services science. It's the componentisation of business."

Note the metaphor: Service should be a science (not a craft, a discipline or an art.)

Horn notes: "Services science would merge technology with an understanding of business processes and organization, a combination of recognizing a company's pain points and the tools that can be applied to correct them. To thrive in this environment, an IT-services expert will need to understand how that capability can be delivered in an efficient and profitable way, how the services should be designed, and how to measure their effectiveness."

IBM's website notes: "industrial and academic research facilities need to apply more scientific rigor to the practices of services, such as finding better ways to use mathematical optimization to increase productivity and efficiency on demand."

IBM is enlisting academic collaborators to unlock an understanding of how to achieve efficiency in services. One IBM collaborator, Arizona State University, proudly boosts that services aren't about "platitudes", its about now about science.

Two visions of services. Both addressing a concern of people. Is the notion of service as experience enhancement in opposition to the notion of service cost reduction? Possibly, but not necessarily. Both designers and business people need to work the the ambiguity of services. People are contradictory: they spend great sums on services, and want value, but still want to be treated like a king. Some creative thinking is necessary to make that possible, but I imagine it is possible.

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