Are students customers or products in an higher education institution?
The answer to the question is forced upon higher education institutions by the very nature of the information systems they implement. There are two types of systems in a higher education environment. Some information systems treat students like products of the institution and other systems treat students like customers of the institution.
ERP systems like Banner, Kuali, and PeopleSoft are designed to maximize efficiency. By simple virtue of the need to process large volumes of students in registration or accounts payable, the student becomes a product. They enter into a system for processing like unfinished goods. The administration module begins processing the large volume of raw material (applicants). The registration system and associated systems like the degree audit system help track the work-in-process inventory (students). Eventually they become finished goods to be delivered by the convocation system (graduates).
Learning management systems such as Moodle and BlackBoard are designed to enhance learning outcomes and improve the educational experience. The LMS is designed to help students learn the course material. A well-designed LMS environment provides consistency throughout the student's lifecycle at the institution. They are designed to optimize the learning experience with little consideration given to maximizing efficiency. Similarly, campus services such as wireless are architected to improve the student experience through ubiquitous service and gobs of bandwidth. These types of systems are intended to treat students as customers receiving a service from the institution.
The student help desk is a transaction-processing environment. Clear response and escalation processes are defined to maximize the customer experience. Effectiveness of response, and customer satisfaction take priority over efficiency. High touch and human contact create a positive student experience that will improve student retention. Conversely, billing students for tuition is a production process. It is a process that demands financial rigour and productive use of system resources. The entire billing system is designed to be as efficient as possible.
To be a truly effective CIO in a world where students are sometimes customers and sometimes products is what makes the job interesting. The real opportunity for a CIO in the higher education world is to understand when to see students as products in certain circumstances, and when to focus on students as customers in other scenarios. This wonderful opportunity forces CIOs to deliver process efficiency and learning effectiveness concurrently to the same group of people. The best CIOs are good at both skills sets and know exactly when to apply the right approach.
One more wrinkle to make it more interesting. Are faculty and staff customers of the IT organization? I suggest that IT needs to treat faculty and staff in a more thoughtful manner than just customers. Like consulting firms, IT should consider faculty and staff to be clients. A client relationship suggests a more nurturing and enduring relationship based on more complex relationship than straightforward customer transactions. WalMart has customers. McKinsey has clients. Which way do you think your faculty and staff would like to be treated?