One of the things you’re supposed to work out some time in your adolescence is that though you’re the star of your own life, you’re not the star of anyone else’s. Some companies never work this out.
A few years ago I worked on a project to make a video-on-demand service for a big UK supermarket chain. All of the supermarket execs kept saying things like ‘our customer’ or ‘the Sainsco customer’. After a while, I worked out what bothered me about this. I do indeed go to one of their shops — or at least I think I do. I’m actually not 100% sure if it’s a Tesco or a Sainsbury. I buy food there every week, but I don’t consider myself their customer — at least not in the sense they meant it. Rather, it’s one of 10 shops I go to in a week, and one of 20 errands I might run.
In other words, your customers’ relationships with you are the only relationships you have as a business and you think a lot about them. But you’re one of a thousand things your customer thinks about in a week, and one of dozens of businesses. And they probably have their own ideas about how they want to engage with you (though they wouldn’t put it in those words) — assuming they think about you at all.
I think this can be expanded to almost every business and institution. I can speak this from my experience at a University.
A university is important to people for about a year before they attend. It is almost all consuming of their life while they are studying. But then when they leave, they leave. Sure they might think about a fun time they had, remember a quip from a professor in their new post college life, but for the most part a college education is a means to an end.
One of our core principles, although emphasized less and less, is “Students first”. It explains almost everything on campus, from our parking to our move in, to our residence halls. And I think that it is a good guide. It also makes us complicit in the complete failure of preparing our students for life after college.
There are very few established organizations where the all of ideas of a 22 year old are considered let alone accepted. This is not to say the graduate has bad ideas or that the organization is rigid, but that an established organization has churned through people and their ideas regularly. People come to an organization, they gain experience, they provide a few good ideas, they eventually move on. Circle of Life.
But if students are treated with kid gloves, always told their input is highly valued, and given what is usually earned with experience, why would they want to leave?
I am confident in saying that my university is the largest single employer of our graduates, which I find horrifying. Not because the graduates we produce are incapable of work, but because we are reinforcing a mindset. Students should leave university and go on to bigger and hopefully better things (that they earn). But if we continue to expose them to the culture they were familiar with as students, they never think outside of the experiences they have had.
I have been in higher education for almost a decade now and I find people who I consider to be overly connected with an institution they attended to be peculiar. Not those who continue to follow their alma mater’s athletic teams, but those who clearly are attempting to hold on to their nostalgic past, these are the people who Benedict is referring to. They spend all their time thinking about the university, so why doesn’t everyone else? Solipsism, indeed.