Can services evolve as a scientific study?

A US researcher is tipping that tertiary degrees in 'services' will be a reality within 10 years.

Jim Spohrer, director of services research at IBM's Almaden Research Centre, said services science studies form an increasingly important part of the global economy.

More than 50 percent of IBM's revenue now comes from services and for other companies, like General Electric, the percentage is even higher, Spohrer said during a presentation at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco last week.

"Product companies are turning into services companies," he said. "The manufacturing sector is decreasing, and the services sector is expanding."

Spohrer likened the US's transition into a service economy to the move from an agricultural to manufacturing way of life, which occurred during the last century. He said that the emerging services industry offered new areas to study.

"One of the interesting things, to me, is work evolution," he said, referring to the study of how certain types of services jobs have changed over the years. Call centres in the 1970s, for example, were staffed by technical experts. Today they are staffed by less skilled people who use computer-based knowledge systems and the trend towards outsourcing and speech-recognition systems continues to change the call centre experience.

"Work seems to follow this evolutionary pattern," Spohrer said.

The idea behind services science is to develop a curriculum focused on the study of the services industry, much in the same way that computer science gradually evolved as an independent field of study during the mid-20th century.

IBM researchers have already filed a number of patents in the area, including one for something they call a Business Practices Alignment Method. This technique, developed by researchers Sara Moulton Reger and Mike Armano was based on work done following IBM's 2002 acquisition of PwC Consulting, the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. It describes a systematic method for culling competing business practices when two companies merge, Spohrer said.

Services science has caught the attention of academics at a number of universities including Berkeley, Stanford University, Northwestern University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spohrer said.

Though he declined to reveal which schools had plans to begin offering services science classes, students will be able to enrol in the first of them within the year, he said. Actual services sciences programs would take more time to develop, however. "Getting a Ph.D, I think, will take 10 years, realistically," he said in an interview after his Web 2.0 presentation.

IBM is inviting a select group of representatives from manufacturing and service companies, government and academia to a services science workshop, to be held at the Almaden Research Centre November 17 to 18.

"This is very early stage," Spohrer said during his presentation. "We may fall flat on our face, or we may be creating a new discipline that may someday be as well-known as computer science."

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