guest article by Kristina Heinonen

Recently, while reading fellow researchers’ observations on the state of service research, I was led to reflect on how far the field has come. Cristiana Lages and colleagues (2013) describe the field as a global and tolerant community of researchers, and Werner Kunz and Jens Hogreve’s analysis show how the focus of service research has evolved (Kunz & Hogreve, 2011). I think we can all agree that service research has matured into an influential field, with benefits for all organizations, regardless of sector. This is exciting, especially when I recall the remarks of my colleague, Professor Emeritus Christian Grönroos, about how the scientific community reacted to his doctoral dissertation on service marketing. At the time (mid-1970s) the topic was perceived as uninteresting and insignificant; how wrong they were, as those same ideas became the foundation for Grönroos’ pioneering and still extensively cited textbook!

_DSC6040Wide-ranging research community

Service research is now widely regarded as a coherent and inclusive community of researchers. In recent decades, we have analyzed and conceptualized the founding premises of service at different levels of abstraction, moving between micro, meso and macro levels of analysis. We have increasingly seen interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration and a growing number of collaborative research workshops and joint publications, all informing a broader and yet richer understanding of service.

_DSC6285Common scientific language

Drawing on service operations, information systems, service science, customer behavior and human resource management, this global community generates an increasing diversity of research and practical implications. However, we should also recognize the potential drawbacks of this increased collaboration and integration. As a scientific community, we tend to embrace certain hot concepts, adopting a common language and reporting similar research projects at conferences, in special issues and in teaching, with topics like customer experience, engagement, co-creation, resource integration and wellbeing attracting widespread interest in recent years. The danger is that, as research streams become more synchronized and integrated, this harmonious path may reduce diversity rather than augmenting it. Choosing (deliberately or unintentionally) to focus on such topics relates less to their importance than to the prevailing scientific language: “… science is a cultural product, and that what, at any point in time, scientists choose to study relates less to the intrinsic properties of the object of study per se, and more to the language an inquiring community happens to adopt” (Tsoukas 1998:784). It is often easier to gain acceptance simply by emphasizing similarity and joining an existing community.

Stepping outside the box

As Alvesson and Sandberg (2011) point out, research is increasingly formulaic, based on incremental gap-spotting and accumulated previous research. This is potentially a real threat to the field; to continue to flourish, it must maintain a sensible level of divergence and discord that continuously challenges the prevailing understanding. Research is not only about increasing understanding of a phenomenon but must also accommodate the fresh ideas that emerge through inconsistencies in that understanding: “The purpose of scientific inquiry (both natural and social alike) is not to reveal the true nature of things but to respond to the incoherence among our beliefs and desires produced by novel stimuli” (Tsoukas 1998:789). We need “more fundamental and skeptical questions that may encourage significant rethinking of the subject matter in question” (Alvesson & Sandberg 2011:134). One approach is to explore new topics, as Steve Baron and Rebekah Russell-Bennet proposed in their introductory editorial for the Journal of Services Marketing in October 2015, entitled “Fresh Thinking in Services Marketing.” This resonates very well with the Nordic School of Service, a research approach I am accustomed to at my home university of Hanken, Helsinki. Originally envisioned by Christian Grönroos from Hanken and Evert Gummesson from the University of Stockholm, the Nordic School has been influential in developing the field of service research. Today, it is an open community of researchers who challenge common understandings and advance original ideas, and Christian and Evert’s initial vision remains valid: “Conceptual work and thinking out-of-the-box are key characteristics of the Nordic School. Research is not constrained by mainstream norms regarding what marketing is or what makes research scientific” (Gummesson & Grönroos 2012:490).

Ethos focused on problematization

hanken_3_smallscale_by-frej-vuoriIn September 2015 the service research centre CERS at Hanken published an edited book dedicated to Nordic School research. The Nordic School –Service Marketing and Management for the Future (Gummerus & von Koskull 2015) is a unique compilation of research within the Nordic School tradition. Much of this research emanates from CERS, home to Christian Grönroos, who was the first non-American scholar to be named “Legend in Marketing” by The Sheth Foundation. From mainly marketing and service research backgrounds, the large CERS research community draws on the unique Nordic School tradition. The focal interest of all CERS researchers is new theory generation and in-depth understanding through questioning of underlying assumptions. This shared ethos is globally unique and groundbreaking and accounts for CERS’ success in producing impactful and managerially relevant research. Returning to my initial reflections about diversity in the service research community, the researchers’ backgrounds and main interests are of secondary importance. In fostering novel, impactful ideas, the key is acceptance and propagation of diverging ideas. I look forward to further assumption-challenging discussions at the Servsig service research conference in Maastricht in June!

_DSC6170Kristina Heinonen is Professor of Service and Relationship Marketing at the Department of Marketing at Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki. She is Director of the service research centre CERS, which was established in 1994 and is home to approximately 50 doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. Since CERS’ inauguration, 58 doctoral dissertations have been completed within the specific field of service marketing. www.hanken.fi, www.cers.fi


Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2011). Generating research questions through problematization. Academy of management review, 36(2), 247-271.

Gummesson, E., & Grönroos, C. (2012). The emergence of the new service marketing: Nordic School perspectives. Journal of Service Management, 23(4), 479-497.

Gummerus, J. and von Koskull, C. (2015), The Nordic School – Service Marketing And Management For The Future, Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland, ISBN: 978-952-232-284-5, http://hdl.handle.net/10138/156531

Kunz, W. H., and Hogreve, J. (2011). Toward a deeper understanding of service marketing: The past, the present, and the future. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 28(3), 231–247. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167811611000437

Lages, C. R., Simões, C. M. N., Fisk, R., & Kunz, W. H. (2013). Knowledge Dissemination in the Global Service Marketing Community. Managing Service Quality, 23(4), 272–290. http://doi.org/10.1108/MSQ-03-2013-0048

Tsoukas, H. (1998). The word and the world: A critique of representationalism in management research. International Journal of Public Administration, 21(5), 781-817.

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