To date, several disciplines have broached the systems view of service and the engineering of service systems. Operations research applied to services began with a rather simplistic, macro view of resource integration in the form of data envelopment analysis (DEA), introduced by Charnes, Cooper and Rhodes in 1978 (Banker et al., 1984; Charnes et al., 1994). Micro models of service systems have tended to study the systems’ IT components (Hsu, 2009; Qiu 2009). Engineering, which has always been associated with ‘assembling pieces that work in specific ways’ (Ottino, 2004) and ‘a process of precise composition to achieve a predictable purpose and function’ (Fromm, 2010: 2), has contributed to greater scalability and purposeful control in service systems. However, the agents of the system are usually people whose activities may not easily be controlled by predictable processes and yet are critical aspects of the value-creating system (Ng et al., 2011b). There is need for a new combinative paradigm, such as third-generation activity theory, in which two or more activity systems come into contact, to explore dialogue, exchanging perspectives of multiple actors, resulting in networks or groups of activity systems that are constantly interacting (Marken, 2006; Nardi, 1996, Oliveros et al., 2010).
While various systems approaches, such as general systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1962); open systems theory (Boulding, 1956; Katz and Kahn, 1978); and viable systems approach (Barile, 2008; Beer, 1972; Golinelli, 2010), will not be reviewed here (see Ng et al., 2011a for a systems approach to service science), they share common tenets: boundaries, interfaces, hierarchy, feedback and adaptation to which most systems writers would add emergence, input, output and transformation (Kast and Rosenzweig, 1972). These terms may be used as a basis for a research agenda for the consideration of a service system.