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Customers vs. Stakeholders in Education

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There is a debate in the education community about whether school districts have "customers" or "stakeholders." Many people think these two words are interchangeable and favor using "stakeholder" as the friendlier term to describe parents, teachers, students and others in the community. In reality, these two terms mean two different things.

A stakeholder is an individual, group, or organization who is affected by the outcome of a product or service and possibly involved in doing the work. Anyone associated with the project either directly or indirectly can consider themselves a stakeholder. Not all stakeholders are created equal and different stakeholders have varying levels of involvement or say in decision making. In education, a stakeholder could be anyone from a local business to a private donor, taxpayer, or government organization. Remember, anyone who decides they're a stakeholder is one.

A customer, on the other hand, is an individual who receives or purchases a product or service. A customer also has (or should have) the ability to buy or rate this product or service. Such feedback (or voice of the customer) is then frequently used to improve organizational processes and set requirements. Every organization has customers, and without them, most organizations would not exist. In education, parents, students, businesses, local taxpayers, bus drivers, teachers, principals and other school staff are all customers.

There are both external and internal customers. External customers are not part of an organization but receive something from it. For example, taxpayers pay to help operate and maintain schools, which in turn, help educate their children (or children in their community) and contribute to the quality of the community. Internal customers operate daily within an organization. Teachers, principals, human resources employees, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, the superintendent, and STUDENTS (a group of "customers" that people typically forget) are all internal customers for schools.

School district employees are customers of their human resources department. They come to HR with a request or need, and it is the job of the HR staff to respond, providing specific services or information. The interaction between schools and the district's central office is another great example of the internal customer relationship. Schools request information from central office personnel making them a customer of the central office. Likewise, the central office requests documents or information from schools, making the central office a customer of the schools. All of those interactions could be measured, evaluated, or improved.

Please, share your thoughts. Do you believe school districts have customers, stakeholders, both, or neither?

My take: Districts have BOTH customers AND stakeholders.

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