Published on July 1st, 2014 | by Peter Ward


Establishing a Strong Theory of Service

The Frontiers in Service Conference 2014 was held recently (June 26-29) at the Department of Business Administration at Miami University. A lovely location, the conference itself was an excellent blend of expert and relative novice joining together in exploring the outer edges of what Service means in our world. Real global friendships exist within a relatively small population of researchers who come together to share their work with a sense of positive cooperation.

What was also noticeable was that most of the material presented was at the lower end of the “wow factor” scale. If the conference was really about those frontiers, then perhaps there’s not as much going on to push on them as we would like. What was genuinely ground-breaking? The most notable was probably the launch of a Base of the Pyramid Service Research Network based on the prolific works of Professor Javier Reynoso in Mexico. His framework for applying Service-Dominant Logic to the BoP ecosystem shows great promise and I look forward to exploring how my interests of patient drug adherence in sub-Saharan Africa interlock with his wider perspectives.

There were other themes which showed through. Customer delight was one, and the impact of Big Data on service was another. But ideas which seemed notable by their absence included the use of social media to deliver service, the challenges of multi-channel service delivery (physical, online, mobile), and perhaps most sadly, the lack of drive to establish strong theoretical foundations for service, especially Service-Dominant logic (S-D logic).

The “fathers” of S-D logic, Professors Stephen Vargo and Robert Lusch, are happy to describe it as a “lens” or “viewpoint”. While it is laudable not to exaggerate its stature, it’s now 10 years since S-D logic was propounded and we’re no further forward in establishing it as a theory.

One of the effects of this is that work on service continues to progress along divided lines (service delivery, service logic, servitisation, relationship logic, service delivery, etc) because there is no agreed underpinning theory. As a result of the confusion, S-D logic is facing criticism for proposing concepts which in reality form no part of it.

So I would like to see a big push on this particular frontier of service: developing S-D logic into a theory. There will always remain space for research that considers how servitisation may affect a company’s success, that documents five models of IT outsourcing, or that explores how apologies affect customers’ view of service. But these are expanding the frontiers of service in fairly incremental ways.

A far greater contribution could be made by establishing a strong theory of service that would provide a foundation for unified research within the service community.


Peter is studying for a PhD within WMG's Service Systems Group. The research question for Peter's PhD is "Why are some supply chains better than others at delivering value propositions that address contextual variety in the last yard? The case of patient adherence in sub-Saharan Africa".

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