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Alumni Intelligence and the Value of Connecting

This article is adapted from its original publication, written for and published (in Dutch) in “Tijdschrift voor Hoger Onderwijs Management”, Elsevier, December 2017.

If we want to develop a future proof vision, it is important to determine why it is relevant to stay connected with our alumni, and additionally how we are going to organize this together with them.

In the Netherlands, prospective students and their mums and dads pose the “What can you become with this?” question very early on-- at education fairs and admissions information sessions. Of course, we want to be able to tell a complete and fair story then, illustrated by factual examples. We have often asked ourselves how well we know and measure the success of our graduates at the rapidly changing labour market.

But, how are we dealing with one very important source for this: our Alumni Intelligence.

Here is what is happening on a broad scale:

  • More intense attention for alumni matches is a growing trend of universities that opens their doors to offer alumni as knowledge partners.

  • Alumni have taught us to take more of an outside-in way of thinking and resulted in the definition of a new strategy that actually focusses explicitly on external engagement for students.

  • Alumni Relations offices also play an important role in this discourse and help career offices.

  • Additionally, our diplomas are more valuable for alumni if we are able to strengthen our position in cooperation with them.

  • "If you do not connect, you will be out of the competition” is a credo, that holds for any employee and any organization that wants to become and remain successful in the world of today.

The future-oriented university of today focusses on more than just on its primary processes research and education, behind the doors of academia. Of course, these remain our key processes, but the quality of our educational and research activities will be quicker and stronger assessed by the amount and the way we are able to connect to and create impact the real world. Is this a good thing? It is happening.

So, how can we bolster our Alumni Intelligence?

Engage Faculty with Alumni

The Faculty of Economic and Business (FEB) at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, have revised our Faculty’s mission in line with these Alumni developments. We have installed several advisory boards with alumni and other representatives from the world of employment for our educational programs. In addition, we have launched internally a strategy group for corporate connections, containing key players from faculty research and education and support staff. In our new strategic plan, we have embedded a dedicated chapter to Societal and Corporate Engagement. The transfer of strategy to operation has already resulted in several action plans and projects. One may wonder if the university has now become a business itself, but this phrase quickly arouses complicated discussions. Let us say in this context that we are better adapting ourselves to external cooperation, resulting in better education for students.

For more on working with Faculty, see my former post for The Collective on Embedding Employability.

Create an Educational Model that involves Sourcing Alumni Intelligence

A major part of the challenges that arise in this process are internal ones: not everyone has the same view on education and how linking academia to alumni, corporate, or societal partners is important. And not everyone is as confident or competent to do so. Change management is an interesting party game in an academic setting, to say the least. With the ERS model that follows below, I attempt to show how we can strengthen our primary university processes of Education and Research by relating them to several activities and services that aim for external cooperation with alumni Intelligence (Societal and Corporate Engagement). We have strengthened the link between the E and the R already some years ago in an educational innovation under the label of “research driven education", resulting in broad general bachelor programs and specialized master programs in areas in which we are most knowledgeable.

The link to the S contains several new elements, that are directly related to our mission: “to engage with local and global partners in the corporate world and society in order to contribute with our teaching and research to addressing societal issues and challenges” Alumni relations, career services and executive education at the “educational side”, left in the model, are maybe not totally new in every way, but they now get a more focused attention than before, in a more strategic perspective. The same holds for our centers of expertise and our recently defined signature areas on the right “research side” of the model, in which we try to work from societal challenges and cross disciplinary scientific research findings. We had not yet been thinking a lot about topics like Business services, Customer Relations Management and Strategic partnerships, that we know use to configure and improve our “interface” with the outside world.

Strengthen Internal Collaboration

In order to elaborate on our mission in a coherent manner, we substantially invested in better connecting, Career Services, Corporate Relations, and Alumni Relations. We are not just doing all kinds of separate things, but we are trying to connect them together. To that end, we worked together, to do the following:

  • We implemented new forms of communication support and the necessary IT systems to facilitate this process.

  • On our new portal, FEB for Business, we make our services accessible for potential cooperation outside.

  • Branding has become part of the game, we try to present ourselves in an attractive way.

  • We have strengthened the relationship with our alumni association, that was in the past positioned somewhat remotely from the Faculty. Now there is a much more intensive cooperation resulting in a growing number of activities. Alumni relations do not stand on their own, there are a lot of opportunities.

  • We do have stories to tell. - At the platform that we have launched in 2017 we now have over 2200 users that embarked through their Linkedin profiles. They can use it to network but they can also connect to our educational and research activities.

  • We have launched our own annual alumni survey per cohort, that we now have executed three times, provides us with rich information on who has found employment in what sector, in which organization and in what specific role. In cooperation with our research colleagues from the department of Human Resource Management we study the career paths of alumni. What kind of career choices do they make, how did they develop themselves, what are their personal drivers and ambitions? This results in valuable information that is not only relevant from a scientific perspective, but that can also be used to inform and recruit new students.

  • In the project “Embedding Employability” we have organized an “audit” in which all academic program directors have been interviewed on the level of engagement of alumni in their specific programs.

Alumni can be engaged in all activities from the ERS model, both on the educational and the research side of it. For this to work well, new systems need to be in place where it is necessary with faculty, connecting multiple offices, and zooming in on alumni in their context of employment, asking them what they are actually doing and how we might be able to support them, and if they are willing to cooperate with their alma mater to make a substantial difference. We know they are!

Wijnand Aalderink MA, is the Director of Career Services and Corporate Relations, and a Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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