Guest article by Bieke Henkens, recipient of the 2023 SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award.

Do you use a smart watch when sporting? Or a smartphone application that helps you navigate in a new city when on vacation? Or maybe even a smart tracker or smart glasses when working? You might have noticed that smart products are finding their way into your everyday personal and professional life. These smart products operate as boundary objects by connecting different actorssuch as customers, employees and organizations, resulting in the emergence of smart service systems (Beverungen et al., 2019; Hoffman & Novak, 2019). Notably, these smart service systems hold the potential to simultaneously address the dynamic needs of different actors. However, to unlock this smartness potential, each of the different actors must be engaged in the system. As this has been put forward as a key challenge by both researchers and practitioners, engagement of different actors – that is, customers, employees and organizations – in smart service systems became the central focus of my doctoral research.

When are service systems smart?
To study actor engagement in smart service systems, it was essential to first clarify what ‘smartness’ really means. My research reveals that service systems are only ‘smart’ if they are enabled by smart products that entail four essential smartness characteristics: awareness, connectivity, actuation and dynamism. If one of these characteristics is lacking, smartness is not achieved. Furthermore, these characteristics vary from low to high levels, which results in levels of smartness that can vary along a continuum (Henkens et al., 2021). Hence, smartness and its characteristics are represented as gears considering that all gears need to be present but can vary in size. 

Engaging different actors in smart service systems
Based on this smartness, service systems hold the potential to meet the dynamic needs of the connected actors IF they all engage with the smart product. Against this background, I focused on the engagement of organizations, customers and employees considering that they are recognized in literature as three key actors in indirect service systems enabled by technologies such as smart products (Abboud et al., 2021). Based on the insights resulting from these studies, I formulate three principles to engage the different actors in smart service systems and hence unlock their smartness potential:

Choose the pathway to smartness wisely 
There are several pathways to smartness for organizations: cautious, tailored, premium and balanced pathways. The choice is driven by the organization’s logic on how to co-create value with customers. This logic then drives how the smartness characteristics are integrated into the system and the value is communicated to customers (Henkens et al., 2022). 

The smarter, the better! 
Investments in smartness only result in higher engagement and well-being for customers if organizations do not overlook unexpected drawbacks. Make sure to not only focus on the personalization benefits, but also to consider negative feelings resulting from the intrusion of a smart product into customers’ personal and/or social life (Henkens et al., 2021).

Don’t forget employees’ smart journeys 
Ensure and communicate a fit between smart products and employees’ boundary-spanning roles over time. Along their smart journey, align the smart products with employees’ routine practices in relation to their organization, their profession and their customer (Henkens et al., work-in-progress – Best Paper Award at La Londe Conference 2022).

My smart journey ….
Across my research projects, I engage in a wide range of quantitative research methods (e.g., experimental studies and field studies) and qualitative research methods (e.g., interviews, case studies and ethnographic studies). In doing so, I attach great importance to collaborating not only with various international researchers but also with numerous and diverse organizations. As such, I bridge theory and practice as well as establish broad academic and business networks. 

In my current position as a FWO Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University and a Guest Professor at KU Leuven and Hasselt University, I build on my doctoral research to foster a novel research pipeline related to smart products and service systems, actor engagement and well-being. In addition, I complement my research with teaching activities at the three aforementioned universities. These efforts allow me to be optimally prepared for the next step of my academic career in service research and education. 

Bieke Henkens
Postdoctoral Researcher
Ghent University