Guest article by Jim SpohrerChristopher Lovelock Career Contributions Award Recipient 2021.

The pandemic has changed our daily service experiences.  COVID has taken its toll on all of us. All types of service systems – individuals, families, businesses, universities, cities, and nations – have had to adapt. However, perhaps one silver lining is the accelerated digital transformation of business and society.   More of us are working from home, regularly using same day and overnight deliveries, participating in online classes, having online doctor’s visits, being aware of personal actions that slow the spread when we are out and about, and many more behavioral changes, large and small.  

Accelerated digital transformation and a focus on our daily interactions could foreshadow “the Dawn of a Golden Age of Service.”  And to be clear, an age that I am sure will again allow giving a big friendly hug to our dearest colleagues at in-person conferences again – if that is what we enjoy and work together to achieve.

As service scholars, both our passion and responsibility to the field cause us to always dig deeper in our study of service and service systems.  Scholars reveal whatever understanding we can find, while also constantly generating and reflecting on new questions for the field.  What is our role as service scholars in making the pandemic truly become the dawn of a Golden Age of Service?  An age of great advancements is surely possible – but how best to proceed well and wisely?    Also, as the second practitioner to be honored by colleagues with the AMA ServSIG Christopher Lovelock Career Contributions to the Service Discipline Award, I have been asked: “What advice can you give to early career service scholars?”   Advice is the easy part.   Let me echo the words of Dwayne Gremler from 2014 – choose wisely, and be synergistic, opportunistic, and perseverant.   

What might the dawn of a Golden Age of Service be like? This is what Steve Vargo might call a “Big, Interesting Question.”  How to make it theory-focused could be a challenge though.  Nevertheless, in a Golden Age of Service, the productivity and quality levels of service operations would be expected to be much higher than today, thanks in part to artificial intelligence (AI) and digital twin technologies.  Some might say Japanese manufacturing raised the bar on product quality in the 1970’s and 1980’s, represented the dawn of a Golden Age of Manufacturing quality.  However, research indicates our expectation of quality rise over time as well.  Some aspects of robots in service are already underway, and are nicely covered in the latest edition of the award winning textbook by Jochen Wirtz.  It would be interesting to know what Christopher Lovelock would have to say about service robots, and the possibilities of the dawn of a Golden Age of Service.  

In spite of my career in the tech industry, from an AI startup in the 1970’s to Apple in the 1990’s to IBM for the past 23 years, my hope is the dawn of a Golden Age of Service will be marked more by the ambitions presented by Ray Fisk and colleagues, active in the ServCollab.   Ray suggested I read Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History, and it was eye-opening to learn so much about our model of people.  Misinformation abounds.  The dawn of a Golden Age of Service should not just be from a business perspective, happier customers, but from a societal perspective, healthier, wealthier, and wiser citizens.  Marianna Mazzucato in her book “Moonshot Economy” aimed at policy makers presents ideas that dovetail quite nicely with ideas put forward by Amy Ostrom and colleagues who have worked to outline service research priorities, including transformative service research.  One of my mentors, Doug Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse and a framework for augmented human capabilities,  would agree that advances in both tool system and human system are needed to address today’s complex, urgent problems.

What could go wrong? Lots.  The dawn of a Dark Ages of Service, in which the digital twin models of each of us feed our fears in a vicious downward spiral eroding trust in each other, trust in science, and trust in democratic institutions.  The new book by John Hagel  titled “The Journey Beyond Fear” is well worth reading.  Bregman’s “Humankind” also makes the point about upward and downward spirals of trust throughout human history.  The dawn of a Golden Age of Service should be an upward spiral of trust, including Trusted AI which IBM has been investing in heavily.  IBM has also been investing in federated learning, which allows individuals to own their data, and still get the benefits of pooled big data, for recommendation systems.  On this topic, I am also impressed with the efforts of the service scholar Irene Ng, who has been working to allow individuals to own and monetize their datasets in new digital markets that are more privacy preserving.  

In sum, there has never been a more exciting time to be an early career service scholar embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, or for that matter, a service scholar at any stage of the journey.   Service systems that we are part of and that envelop us as we pursue our daily lives are constantly changing.  We are these systems.  These systems are the responsible entities learning to invest in applying knowledge for mutual benefits.  Find a question that you are passionate about understanding more deeply.  Also, be aware of our community’s collective responsibility in these pandemic times.  Let’s make this the dawn of a Golden Age of Service.  

James C. Spohrer
Board of Directors, International Society of Service Innovation Professionals (