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Alumni can play a key role in helping their alma mater prepare students for the workplace of the future. How can educational institutions engage their alumni better and reap the benefits of this connection?
Tina, a third-year IT student, wants to start her own application development business after completing her graduation. But, she isn’t aware of the process and, most importantly, doesn’t know what it takes to be an entrepreneur. She reaches out to Dr. Rao, the relationship director of her college who heads the entrepreneur cell of alumni initiatives.
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After hearing about Tina’s dilemma, Dr. Rao asks his team to curate the college’s alumni database and come up with a list of people who can help Tina. Remembering his past interactions and seeing the alumni’s current work profile on social media, Dr. Rao picks Parul from the list and sends a meeting request.
Parul, who works at a start-up that offers digital transformation solutions for retail businesses, accepts the invite after reading the subject line: “Mentoring opportunity.” Parul was always passionate about mentoring budding entrepreneurs and she was very thankful to Dr. Rao for this opportunity. Dr Rao briefed Parul and both agreed on the expectations. Within a couple of days, Tina receives an email from the alumni cell that that she has been assigned a mentor. Dr Rao receives a thank you note, this time from Tina.
While Tina’s dilemma is common, the way her search ended is, unfortunately, not so common. Many graduating students struggle to get the right mentors or are not equipped with the skills needed to negotiate the changing business landscape. In fact, Deloitte’s Dean Survey results reveal that 78 percent deans and 71 percent alumni consider students’ employability a prime challenge in the next five years.
Certainly, institutions have a big role in enhancing the readiness of students by engaging and connecting with alumni who are in the marketplace. Are institutions elevating their role and strengthening their connections with alumni? Unfortunately, our survey shows that the relationship between an institution and its alumni is still transactional, activates around placement season only, and is largely limited to passive location meets once a year. According to our survey, 52 percent of the alumni said they don’t connect with their institutions, and for those who do, it is mostly an annual event.
So, what is getting in the way of institutions building more meaningful and sustained alumni relationships?
Although the reasons and degree of disconnect are unique to each institution, three possible factors explain the disconnect:
The expectation mismatch: The transactional mindset of institutions (for example, engaging alumni in and around the placement season) is not striking a chord with alumni, who are increasingly looking for meaningful and deeper engagements. This could explain why 63 percent of alumni feel that their institution is not making enough efforts to build or maintain a connect with them. On the contrary, 82 percent of deans feel that they are on track with the changes in the industry and have a strong connect with it.
The internship conundrum: Interns serve as a bridge between an institution and its alumni, where the former gets the pulse of the marketplace in real time while the latter learns about developments in their institution. However, institutions’ overemphasis on STEM skills, or their lack of emphasis on softer professional skills such as effective communication and networking, results in this bridge being underutilized or ineffective. According to our survey, less than half of the interns have the necessary networking and soft skills to foster a connect with alumni.
Missing the pulse of the new workforce: Institutions are not in sync with changing motivations and priorities of the new workforce, or our young demographics. The new workforce/alumni prefer engagements that are mutually beneficial and, most importantly, have a broader impact on society. For the youngest workforce/alumni, millennials, in fact, enhancing employees’ livelihoods and paying back to the society are some of the top priorities and 76 percent of them feel that businesses are underdelivering on these aspects.1 On the other hand, the experienced workforce/alumni, prefer engagements that strengthen their network and brand, leverage their unique strengths (for example, communication, mentorship, and leadership skills), and help them challenge the status quo or drive a positive change in the education system.
Correcting the end-to-end disconnect between campus and alumni requires new engagement strategies. Such strategies have to be mindful of alumni’s underlying priorities and aspirations, tap into their business acumen, and help institutions build a life-long, value-based relationship with alumni.
A powerful and sustainable way to engage alumni is to appreciate and monetize their rising volunteering instinct, which is rightly instigated by many organizations as part of their corporate responsibility. Deloitte’s Dean Survey reveals that 84 percent of alumni are willing to contribute to the development of their institution, across multiple areas from funding research to increasing the employability of students (one of the major challenges highlighted by alumni). Institutions can tap into this willingness by learning about their alumni’s passion and engaging them in activities that matter to them the most.
Imagine the impact, when an institution engages alumni who are passionate about democratizing access to education by making them “local deans” in their respective native areas. When someone’s passion starts driving action, everyone wins—the institution, students, workforce, society and, most importantly, alumni themselves. Harvard University, for instance, has an array of such initiatives where alumni can offer to be a social media ambassador, participate in mentorship programs, or simply donate.2 In a premier Indian college, alumni support sponsorship developmental programs for faculty that in turn enhance students’ learning experience.3
Today’s corporates are investing heavily in building niche skills among its workforce, with the objective of having more experts in their organization. Engaging with alumni experts could help in institutions' efforts to plug gaps in the existing system. For instance, alumni who are leading innovation in their organizations could be a treasured resource for advancing institutions' R&D capabilities. Whether it is setting up a new incubation center or introducing technologies to transform the learning experience or revising the entire curriculum, such opportunities broaden the outlook and solidify alumni’s expertise. Again, a win-win situation for all.
A real case in point is MIT, which connected with its alumni to get their perspectives before building the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing.4 Alumni were engaged through webcast sessions on how to advance the cross-disciplinary aspirations of the college and integrate ethics into learning. Alumni inputs were also considered invaluable in exploring how computing is shaping the world.
Being more customer-focused and service-oriented is becoming a significant advantage and performance differentiator for both organizations and professionals. Without a doubt, everyone knows the value of having a customer-centric mindset as a happy customer, and his/her continued loyalty, have a direct influence on the organization’s financial results.
Institutions need to adopt this corporate mindset and make alumni their key “customers.” This way, institutions can stay ahead of alumni’s engagement needs and create specific opportunities that meet the objectives of both (the way it happened for Tina and Parul). However, this customer-centric approach shouldn’t be seen as just a mode by the alumni cell to convert this relationship into financial considerations for the university. ISB’s alumni cell, for example, engages its alumni by providing them access to many lifelong learning programs. The institution's special interest groups (SIGs) also facilitate networking, learning, and knowledge sharing for their alumni.5
Successful alumni engagement has multifold benefits. We have so far outlined some of the areas where alumni can play a crucial part. Other direct ways in which educational institutions can draw from these relationships are explored in the following sections.
Whether it is funds for research and development or for scholarships—the diversity of help from alumni can strengthen the various learning initiatives. In fact, our survey reveals that only 75 percent of Indian students graduating out of institutions are just moderately ready (scoring between 5 to 8 out of a total of 10) in terms of industry preparedness. Alumni can be the key to unlocking a whole new learning experience. For instance, courses with more practical applicability and industry relevance with less focus on theory can be designed in collaboration with alumni.
Organizing seminars and workshops by business leaders and facilitated by alumni would go a long way in building networking bridges. These networks in turn might help in offering internship opportunities, something, the Dean’s Survey says, 70 percent of institutions find it challenging to offer students.
More than 12 million Indians enter the workforce every year.6 But, not all of them are adequately equipped for the workplace. Alumni, who have already learned the ropes, can be a major part of the solution. So, it is imperative for the institutions to engage this growing pool of alumni that spans across generations.
Besides, with change being the norm and the world of business witnessing a revolution that’s bringing in a new industrial era, Industry 4.0, educational institutions need to capitalize on every resource available, alumni being one of them. To adapt Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, let’s say that engagement=meaningful x connections². This illustrates how educational institutions can prepare themselves for a new approach to engage with their alumni.
An institution can elevate its own role, or empower itself, by leveraging the growing maturity of its own alumni base through new engagement strategies in today’s fast-changing world. A strong and vibrant alumni-institution relationship will end up creating a new generation of Indian students who are ready for the future of work.