A new research center at Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business focuses on the study of services and, in particular, designing and improving service systems.

The multidisciplinary Center for Services Science, Quality, and Innovation aims to address many of the issues resulting from the "tremendous changes" seen during the past two decades as the U.S. economy and others have moved away from manufacturing and toward services, said Robin Russell, center director and business information technology professor.

"The more we outsource our manufactured goods, the more our manufacturing companies become services companies," she said. "They have to manage a supply chain instead of the manufacturing process, becoming brokers between the customer and the outsourced manufacturer. And how well they do that brokering--how well they translate what the customer wants and how well they define it for the manufacturers--that’s what service systems is about."

Information technology, said Russell, is one U.S. industry that has undergone significant transformation, with the outsourcing of basic programming to India, China, Ireland, and Eastern Europe. "IBM switched from being a computer manufacturer to being an IT company and then from being a software company to being a service provider. That's a big change in emphasis--thinking in terms of providing a service to the customer instead of providing software code or programming the computers."

The center, approved by the university earlier this year, takes an approach that combines an understanding of business processes, customer needs, and emerging technologies. The "science" component of the center's work refers to the use of quantitative and other techniques to improve efficiency, Russell said. "Helping to ensure that the service maintains its level of excellence and value--that's the quality part. And thinking of new ways to provide services and value to customers--that's the innovation part."

The center is interested in collaborating with researchers from other disciplines, including hospitality and tourism management, marketing, management, sociology, psychology, architecture, and industrial engineering, said Russell, a specialist in operations management. The center's associate directors are Steve Sheetz, associate professor of accounting and information systems, whose research interests are in software measurement and programming psychology, and Chris Zobel, associate professor of business information technology, who specializes in decision support systems.

The center envisages an active research agenda, Russell said, with potential projects not only in IT, but also in such non-manufacturing fields as healthcare, banking, hospitality, disaster recovery, and homeland security. "These are all areas that need a new focus on the customer, and we can help by designing service systems that not only provide efficiency gains for the company, but really do end up benefiting the customer."

The changes in industry also have an impact "on how we educate our students," Russell said. "We will be proposing various business curriculum changes to include courses on service systems and offering learning opportunities for our students through participation in research projects for the center's client companies."

The center offers its assistance to businesses and individuals seeking to improve their services for industrial or consumer markets. For more information about the center's research, contact Robin Russell at (540) 231-4532. On the Web, visit the Center's website.

Virginia Tech's nationally ranked Pamplin College of Business offers undergraduate and graduate programs in accounting and information systems, business information technology, economics, finance, hospitality and tourism management, management, and marketing. The college emphasizes the development of ethical values and leadership, technology, and international business skills. A member of its marketing faculty directs the interdisciplinary Sloan Foundation Forest Industries Center at Virginia Tech. The college's other centers focus on business leadership, electronic commerce, organizational performance, and services innovation. The college is committed to serving business and society through the expertise of its faculty, alumni, and students. It is named in honor of alumnus Robert B. Pamplin, the former CEO of Georgia-Pacific, and businessman, philanthropist, and alumnus Robert B. Pamplin Jr.