Committed alumni are essential

When companies develop strong ties to alumni, there are rewards to reap - for the companies as well as alumni. That is the conclusion of a recent research project in which Assistant Professor Florence Villesèche was involved.


Florence Villeséche
Photo: Barbara Regina Grübel

By: Jakob Vesterager

Where are you an alum from? The answer to that question seems to become longer and longer as time passes. Like universities, companies have started to consider their former employees alumni. This means that you will be an alumna or alumnus from your university and all the companies you used to work in.

However, companies are not interested in keeping in touch just for the fun of it. Research done by Assistant Professor and Marie Curie Fellow Florence Villesèche at the Department of International Economics and Management shows that by staying in touch, there are rewards to reap for companies as well as alumni.  The research project was carried out in collaboration with Emmanuel Josserand, Professor of Management, and Thibaut Bardon, Associate Professor of Management.

- Our aim was to study strategic and business rewards of alumni networks for alumni and companies. We discovered that alumni networks can lead to many rewards such as business and knowledge development, says Florence Villesèche.

An underestimated opportunity
One of the conclusions of the research project is that companies underestimate the potential benefits of an alumni network. They know that they can arrange social events, but they underestimate the importance of alumni networks for creating business, innovation and knowledge.

- Alumni work is not considered so much a strategic initiative as a social project with an annual celebration or a conference. This is because the value of the alumni relation has not yet been quantified. And this impedes companies in justifying investment into an alumni network, says Florence Villesèche.

The researchers also found that companies were inclined to see the rewards of collaborating with alumni as ones that could be reaped in the future - but not today; one of the reasons being the fear of exposing trade secrets.

However, the companies are including their alumni to a growing extent, says Florence Villesèche. In the time that has passed since the project was conducted, some of the participating companies have started to engage more with their alumni. For instance, Procter & Gamble have started to send some business ideas to alumni for input or given alumni the opportunity to take part in product development.

- Companies are beginning to realise that it is easier to collaborate with former employees. Even though it may seem rather counter-intuitive, former employees know the company, and they are often happy to do business with their former employer, says Florence Villesèche.

The social aspect
Research also showed that the reason alumni network can yield rewards is quite simple. Social unity is the glue that holds it all together.

- A successful alumni network requires a social aspect. Call it nostalgia, shared memories or shared challenges. That is a great basis for talking to other people. You do not start out by stating what you want to get out of the conversation. You meet in a social setting, and suddenly new opportunities arise, says Florence Villesèche.

The research showed that alumni have a tendency to hire other alumni from the same organisations. Florence Villesèche thinks that the reason is a combination of the satisfaction in being amongst like-minded people and a greater trust in people with the same education or professional background.

The findings also suggest that the social effect that exists among alumni works better in alumni networks than on social media platforms. Having a formalised network where you can meet others makes a difference.

- Our research showed that it is the committed alumni who makes an alumni association work and have value. It is far more important to have a core of alumni who show up and commit to the network than thousands of e-mail recipients, says Florence Villesèche.

Uncharted territory
In her research, Florence Villesèche has worked with alumni from companies, but her interest has widened to include the universities' relationship with their alumni. According to her, the alumni relation has only been subject to research in the USA, where alumni donate money as an established part of the universities' business model. In this way, the American universities are quite distinct from European universities, which are mostly run with public funding.

This is why the relation between European universities and their alumni is uncharted territory in terms of research.

- Compared to the American universities, it is rather difficult for European universities to find the value of their alumni efforts. What do they give and what do they get? Can they afford to donate in times of financial constraint for almost the entire European educational sector? Universities with a diversified education portfolio may find it especially difficult to tie their alumni together or explain the rewards of joining the network. A university like CBS is better off, also because it is a business university, says Florence Villesèche.

Homo Alumnus?
But why would alumni wish to meet other alumni?

Florence Villesèche points to research showing that people are in search of continuity in their lives to be able to make sense of the past. Even when they are fired, they need to give meaning and value to the time during which they worked for the company. And this meaning may be tied to a company or the people you used to work with.

- We tend to perceive people as ’Homo Economicus’, who always act rationally to maximise profits. But that is not how it works in reality. We are not only interested in business. We want to have fun, be nostalgic, make our past make sense and tie our lives together, says Florence Villesèche.

She also emphasises that alumni may find is satisfying to give something back to their alma mater or the place they started their career.

- There can be a certain satisfaction in being acknowledged for your career. But some people also find it rewarding to help students or the institution that gave them their degree – because after all there is a value that you pay forward when you share your knowledge or experience, says Florence Villesèche and continues:

- Obviously, it is not for everybody. As with customers, it is impossible to target everyone all the time. Some will be interested and some will not. These are the conditions - we only have a finite amount of time in our lives. We have to opt in and opt out. Some alumni will identify with an institution and if you have something to offer them, there is a solid basis for a good alumni network for the benefit of the alumni and the institution.

Ways in which companies include alumni:

  • Companies ask alumni to suggest new employees or invite them to join recruitment committees
  • Companies consult with alumni about business problems
  • Knowledge sharing between companies and alumni
  • Mentoring programmes
  • Social events
  • Companies created by alumni can become business partners (suppliers or distributors for example)
  • Alumni can bring business to their former company
  • Some companies try to place their alumni in companies they want to develop business relations with

Further reading recommended by Florence Villeséche:

Cultivating Ex-Employees, Harvard Business Review

The Other Talent War: Competing Through Alumni, MIT Sloan Management Review

Rethinking the ‘War for Talent’, MIT Sloan Management Review

Read more on Florence Villeséches research profile page

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The page was last edited by: Alumni // 10/08/2019