“Services Is a People Business”
Horn wasn’t the only one thinking. In May 2002, Paul Maglio, a cognitive scientist in IBM’s Almaden research lab in San Jose, CA, also had change on his mind. Maglio was working on user-interface research, and over Mai Tais with friends at a Web conference in Hawaii, he spun out a scenario he’d been working on with IBM colleague Rob Barrett, in which the company looked at technology research differently. “Services is a people business,” Maglio says now. “I’m a cognitive scientist; I’m interested in people generally. What we were doing [in human-computer interfaces] was fine, but it didn’t get the whole picture. I thought we could create a new breed of research.”
In particular, Maglio thought that IBM simply didn’t know what its customers actually did with technology. He also didn’t think anyone knew whether IBM’s consultants understood what its customers wanted. He thought there was a need for a broad study that drew on what he called the “human sciences.”
Maglio and Barrett were proposing work that would be much different from what IBM, with its roots in hard science, was used to doing. But they found a willing ear, and a champion, in Jim Spohrer, then the chief technology officer of IBM’s venture capital unit. After a series of discussions starting in July 2002, around the time IBM announced the PricewaterhouseCoopers deal, Spohrer agreed to take the idea first to Robert Morris, head of the Almaden research lab, and ultimately to Horn. He nixed the human-sciences part of the pitch; instead, he proposed using the new approach to help Horn solve his biggest problem: determining how to help the services business. When Spohrer brought the idea to Horn, he described services as a “human business that needed human research.”
The timing was excellent. Horn was already interested in seeing the company develop the ability to do softer research. “What we were doing in services was very much on the quantitative side, and I thought we needed a break from it. We hadn’t done anything at all on how technology affects people,” Horn says. His push to support services thus converged with Maglio’s push to make research more human. That convergence meant not only that services would become an important subject of research, but also that hardware and software research would begin to include some “soft” work. This marked a turning point for IBM – and a good one, Spohrer contends: “Research reinvents itself every 10 years. So it was a good thing to do.”
That December, Horn signed off on the idea. Spohrer was tapped to direct services research at Almaden. His first outside hire was a business anthropologist, Jeanette Blomberg. He wanted her to study work practices, including how technology users collaborate. Meanwhile, Maglio began to investigate what systems administrators actually do. He found that they spent between 60 and 90 percent of their time communicating with other systems administrators about systems issues. Armed with that knowledge, IBM began developing tools to help systems administrators write and share “scripts” – the short, simple programs they use to coördinate the work of other programs.
So far, it may be that the mathematics arm of IBM Research has done the most work on services. Part of the group’s charge is to devise algorithms to improve how businesses use information technology. Brenda Dietrich, manager of the mathematical-sciences research department at the Watson Research Center, says her 90-person unit sees great potential in even the softest research being done on services. “What Jim’s group is doing is a good source of data for my models,” which are currently too simplistic to reflect the real world, she says. Dietrich believes that if IBM can get better data on what people actually do with technology, her group can produce more-useful algorithms. “If we can really get the data [Spohrer is] talking about, that’s powerful.”
About half of those 90 researchers are now engaged in services work at any one time, either traveling with consultants or working on projects that will help consultants. Dietrich says that IBM’s expectations for its research arm have changed gradually but dramatically in the 20 years she has worked there. “It used to be that you got asked, ‘Have you got anything into products?’” she says. But an analogous question about services is harder to answer. Development work on services tends to wind up as part of a process, not a product. Discrete product features are easy to point to; the parts of a process are broader, and mushier.