Wednesday, October 29, 2008


A Vaccination for the Service Science Epidemic

It is truly astounding to see how fast the idea of "service science" (or "SSME" - for "Service Science, Management and Engineering") is spreading since IBM first started promoting it about five years ago (just as it played a key role in the creation of the computer science discipline a few decades ago). Scores of universities around the world have started or are contemplating new academic degree or certificate programs, new journals and books are coming out, and there are more conferences in more places than you could ever possibly attend.

I've done my share to develop and spread the idea of service science; there are eight posts in my Doc or Die blog tagged with "service science" that refer to my own papers or conference presentations.

Here's some indisputable first-hand evidence that service science has become an epidemic. Six months ago, I was invited to give a keynote speech at a "Joint Workshop of Six Japanese Universities on Service Science" hosted by the University of Tsukuba. When I gave that talk two days ago (27 October 2008), the workshop had been renamed the "Joint Workshop of THIRTEEN Japanese Universities on Service Science."

But there's a little disturbing aspect of this. While I believe and endorse the idea that something like service science is emerging as a discipline, I am concerned that many people and institutions are confusing the design of this discipline with the design of the particular curriculum they offer. I published a paper earlier this year titled "Designing a service science discipline with discipline" in which I contrasted a DISCIPLINE as a "principled model of a coherent body of research and practice" from a CURRICULUM as "a program of study leading to a degree or certificate." No single curriculum can cover the entire discipline, and it shouldn't try! Different universities and their schools have distinct emphases and character, and these differences are inevitable and desirable. They exploit the comparative advantages of each institution and their distinctive faculty composition, student population, industry partnerships and other aspects of the local economy, and so on.

This just seems so obvious to me. Berkeley and Stanford both have economics departments, but they don't specialize in the same subjects. It is preposterous to imagine someone telling the four Nobel Prize winners in Berkeley's department that they need to change the courses they teach so that Berkeley can better conform to some standard curriculum model.

But that seems to be happening with service science. Every presentation from IBM about service science contains diagrams like the two I've posted here – like the one on the top that shows the model of the discipline, and the one below that compares service science curricula against the background of that model. They're using terms like "sweet spot" to suggest that the "right" curriculum precisely balances business, technology, and people/social/organizational topics, which of course is an indirect (and perhaps unintentional) criticism of academic units with different specializations. Maybe IBM doesn't realize that this is the message that they're sending with these diagrams, but it is the message that people are receiving.

I know that if the " Information and Service Design" program that we've developed at the UC Berkeley School of Information were analyzed and plotted on this chart, we'd look "defective" in some ways. But our program is innovative, coherent, and takes better advantage of the people, students, and context we've got than anything else we might do. Are we supposed to feel inadequate about this?

So one of the main themes in my Japan conference keynote and in meetings I had with different groups of service science professors and students was to ignore this mandate to create a cookie cutter curriculum in service science, and to develop programs that built on their core competencies. People said they were relieved to hear it because they felt pressure to do otherwise. IBM, are you listening?

-Bob Glushko

tag me: ServicesScience IBM Education UCBerkeley

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People said they were relieved to hear it because they felt pressure to do otherwise. IBM, are you listening?
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