Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Nostalgia of Service Science

I recently accused CRM technology of "a desperate nostalgia to make the service economy look like a production economy." I now realize that this is related to another nostalgia, which is for Frederick Winslow Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management. This latter nostalgia seems, for me at least, to be the best explanation for why the phrase "service science" seems to be insinuating itself into our working vocabulary. As I wrote in my previous blog:

Taylor's intense quantitative analysis of manufacturing processes cast a dark shadow over the nature of work for most of the twentieth century, but we never seem to be able to get out from under that shadow. What was comedy in Cheaper by the Dozen has become dark farce as die-hard Taylorists reflect the behavior of the small boy with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail.

Taylor's principles were not intended to be applied to anything other than production, yet efforts to make the provision of service look like the manufacturing of a product are not as recent as we might thing. One has only to examine the book, Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces that have Shaped the Administration of Public Schools, by Raymond E. Callahan. As I wrote in one of my earliest blog entries:

Never mind that this book was published in 1962; the extent that it was still relevant today was, to say the least, chilling. In a nutshell this book provided an excellent review of the principles of "scientific management," which basically originated from the work of Charles Taylor, and then discussed the ways in which public school systems tried to embrace those principles to the general detriment of the quality of education.

Since education is not just a service profession but also "the second oldest profession" (which makes it interesting that "the oldest profession" is also a service profession), this confusion of service and product can be traced back at least as far as the appearance of Taylor's book.

This leads me to think about one of the more inspiring papers I read that provides an articulate opposition to Taylorism, an article by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid that appeared in 1991 in Organization Science entitled, "Organizational learning and communities-of-practice." What most impressed me about this paper was the way, in the words of their subtitle, Brown and Duguid tried to develop "a unified view of working, learning, and innovation." In the context of the argument I have been trying to develop here, I now see that this unified view may actually be viewed as necessary to the service economy, while in a production economy one would be hard pressed to find many who would advocate it as even desirable. This may have to do with my own reasons for supporting Callahan so enthusiastically: In a production economy, your highest priority is the efficient use of your capital in the production of more capital. Education, on the other hand, does not accord such priority to capital or to its efficient use. Rather, it is concerned with the effectiveness of a process of engagement, the relationship that is formed between teacher and student. This returns me to the theme that our bias towards transactions runs the risk of abstracting away the concept of engagement until nothing is left to it. Unfortunately, this kind of transaction-based thinking is invading the world of education with a destructive force even greater than that of Taylorism. In the community of eLearning, we now have a whole community that wishes to reduce the "educational engagement" (if you can still call it that) to the management of "learning objects," while Ray Kurzweil would have us believe that education is just another form of goal satisfaction.

Where will all this lead? I have already suggested that we are well on the path to losing all confidence in our service providers, but then did not the shift to service come about in response to consumers losing confidence in products manufactured in the United States? Perhaps this is why we now turn to both the products and services as the only place left to place our confidence, trying to ignore, as long as we can, just how impoverished those offerings really are. Then, when the shock of recognizing that impoverishment hits us, while shall succumb to that boredom that will turn us into "mindless and ineffective Eloi!"

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