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Plenty to learn about services

Conference focuses on challenges in services sector, such as how irritating Web-based self-service can be.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
2 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Companies like to trumpet the way their Web sites let customers and employees do "self-service," but Alec McMillan is skeptical of the trend.

McMillan, director of global standards and trade for industrial automation company Rockwell Automation, noted that enabling a staffer to fill out employee benefit forms may save costs in the human resources department, but it may also cause a worker to spend a half hour surfing through Web pages. "I was quite happy to pay for expertise," he said at a conference here Thursday focused on the services sector. "I have a problem having to be my own expert."

The way technological innovations may undermine good service was among the topics discussed by a range of academic and business leaders at Thursday's event, hosted at IBM's Almaden Research Center in the hills of San Jose.

Services account for most jobs in the United States and play an increasingly important role in the technology world. Roughly ="5224935">50 percent of IBM's income, for example, now comes from services ranging from data center management to insurance claims processing.

One of the issues considered Thursday was whether the study of services should be regarded a "science." One participant suggested that services "engineering" should be the label applied to research on services, given that the subject is distinct from examining naturally occurring logical or physical phenomena. Daniel Berg, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, shared the sentiment. "We probably haven't got the right term yet for what's going on," he said.

Much is happening in the academic world related to services. Arizona State University has a Center for Services Leadership. The Center has partnerships with companies including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Ford and Southwest Airlines, said Arizona State professor Mary Jo Bitner. "Everybody is starting to see themselves as a services business," Bitner said.

IBM has been studying the services field for more than two years. Paul Maglio, senior manager of human systems research at IBM, said much attention has been focused on the way technology can improve services. But he argued that more needs to be known about the role of human beings. For example, IBM learned that system administrators spend much of their time communicating with one another rather than adjusting their systems individually, as was assumed. "I think the largest problems are the people problems," he said. "That's where the research needs to go."