Competition and the Public Institution

I’ve been reading a discussion for the past day or so that started with an attempt to survey the competitors, particularly the web-based competitors, of organizations in higher education. The conversation broadened a bit, but it’s still focused on this concept of “competitor.”

It all seems very strange to me, and it makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m not naïve, most any service, free-market or not, is like any human endeavor, we compete, we’ve always competed, whether that’s carving out a spot in Mesopotamia, or on the web. It’s not unhealthy for any of us to look around, see what others are doing, and explore what we might do better.

But here’s the thing, and here’s why I’m uncomfortable. We (by “we” I mean the entire publicly funded university system) don’t lack for surveys, we don’t lack for self-focus, to our credit, at our best, we don’t lack for introspection. We have entire departments dedicated to measuring and processing and coming up with new forms to focus inward, and we spend hours upon hours of time talking about ourselves. Surveying our competition is just another excuse to do more of that. And that’s our problem.

See, our competition is anybody with knowledge and a willingness to share it. Like us, our “competition” has information that both confirms and challenges conventional wisdom, they — and we — have hints of discoveries from meticulous and painstaking research done by thousands of underpaid twentysomethings who poke amino acids just for the fun of it — hints that paired with real-world experience from those outside the lab might be paradigm-shifting revelations in how the world works.

But see here’s the thing, the market, that is these connections to be made, is huge. The market is way bigger than our ability to deliver to it. Most people still get their information from their neighbor’s “lab”. Which is why any significant discussion about “competition” misses the point completely — particularly for the publicly funded institution.

Our value isn’t in what we know, it’s in giving away what we know to enable others to know more.

Our value is in what we can enable ourselves and others to figure out.

If we are going to talk about our competition what we need to do is not wonder what it is they do right, and what we can do to catch up. Instead, our focus needs to be on what is it they do wrong, and most importantly of all, what we can do to enable them to be better.