The value of inventive services from BusinessWeek’s Innovation and Design Portal

It’s the biggest part of the economy these days, but many companies’ innovation remain focused on products. Here’s why that needs to change.

Ask most executives how innovation can spur their growth, and they’ll immediately think about changes in their product lineup. Wrong. They should be thinking “services.”

First of all, there just isn’t a lot of information or rigor around the topic. While reams of books and articles abound on the topic of product innovation and product development, very few focus specifically on services and the distinctions therein.

And you would be hard pressed to find a course on service development or innovation on any B-school campus, reflecting the dearth of academic concentration in the area. Today, few universities even teach service management, and if they do, the emphasis falls to quality management and the operational excellence associated with existing service environments, never the invention and nurture of new service concepts. Further, there are few public forums where professionals involved in service innovation can learn from exemplars.

Second, although we have found that the best service innovators draw on the conventional wisdom associated with product development, most aren’t using the latest tools, such as ethnographic research and rapid development techniques, to drive innovation. Just as important, they don’t understand the basic distinctions between product- and service-innovation environments. Before rushing off to innovate in services, managers would do well to understand their uniqueness.

Finally, research and development groups don’t tend to exist in most service companies. This makes it more difficult for innovation expertise to find a home. By comparison, product-based companies regularly invest billions to understand where their future revenue streams will come from.