Alumni relations in a connected world

I originally published this post on the Dachis Group blog in 2012. ]

Let me ask you a question: are you still in touch with a company where you worked previously?

I assume most of you are, but who you are in touch with: HR? External Communications? Probably not. In reality, you probably still have connections with someone from your team, colleagues that you shared an office with or others that you met through communities of interest (including social groups) while with the company. People connect with people and not with companies and their corporate functions.

This simple observation has a profound impact on the way companies go about their alumni relations. Unless you are McKinsey, most alumni programmes today look something like this:

When an employee leaves the company he is invited by HR to be part of the alumni network. Frequently they will send general news and updates about the company as an email and/or shiny magazine. Recently, companies have rolled out corporate alumni platforms or started to use Ning, LinkedIn or other social media channels to stay in touch with former employees and facilitate connections between them.

In all cases, the value for the company and for alumni is more than questionable. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that most alumni programmes suffer from poor engagement and low return-on-investment. The problem is that the approach to alumni relations is currently flawed. Try to answer the following questions:

  • Do alumni want to connect with HR?
  • Do alumni want to suddenly engage and network with people they don’t know?
  • Does this approach offer intimacy at scale and help build meaningful relationships?
  • Do alumni remember and want to go to yet-another website destination…to do what exactly?
  • What value does corporate news, job tips, discussion forum really offer to the alumni?
  • What value does it bring the company?

If I was put in charge of an alumni programme I would radically change the traditional approach. My alumni programme would:

  1. Enable employees to connect with anyone inside my company
  2. Encourage employees to connect with other employees outside my company
  3. Give ownership to alumni

Enable employees to connect with anyone inside my company

Often, alumni relations start once an employee leaves the firm. I would argue that this is too late. It is difficult to start building relationships once an employee is out of the door. Better to do it whilst he is still with the company, because alumni relations start the day an employee sets foot into the office.

Before the arrival of social tools, hallways, cafeterias, smoking corners and office parties were the few places to meet colleagues you did not directly work with. Unfortunately, these do not scale very well. These days, many organisations have piloted or perhaps implemented an enterprise networking solution. It allows employees to collaborate with each other beyond physical borders, discuss topics they are interested in and connect with like-minded people. That way employees can build their own network of respected and trusted colleagues. The stronger an employee’s network, the more likely she is to stay with the company.

That also means that organisations should not restrict the types of groups or communities of interest that employees would like to create, unless they violate company policy. If there is a group of people crazy about wines or football fanatics, why not provide them with the means to connect inside the company? The money saved for other initiatives to improve employees satisfaction, and thus retention, will make it even more worthwhile.

Encourage employees to connect with other employees outside my company

As sure as death and taxes, an employee will leave eventually. What is one of the first things she does, when she hands in his notice and leaves the company? She reaches out to everyone she knows in the company, says goodbye and leaves her contact details. If she hasn’t yet, she will also start connecting with colleagues on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. This can be a laborious undertaking, and in most cases employees will miss some of the people they met during their time at the company. But they are likely to stay in touch. People connect with people.

So, if I know that people leaving my company connect with my employees using external social media channels, why not encourage and facilitate this activity to begin with? As alumni programme manager, I would look for ways to lower the friction for employees to connect with each other on external networks, too. Easier said than done. I shall delve into details on how exactly this might look like in my next blog post.

Give ownership to alumni

Basically, I would ‘outsource’ parts of my alumni programme to the rest of the company. Nonetheless, even as someone leading such a programme for a company that has become a social business, I still need to be in touch with alumni. Alumni will pick up most of the relevant information or gossip from former colleagues. Thus, general company news or news about other alumni is a nice-to-have, but does not build much trust or engagement. I need to offer more than mere updates from the company: ideally, something that alumni feel proud of and passionate about even when they have left the firm. For example, it is said (http://www.corporate-alumni.info/survey_corporate_alumni_networks_summary_english.pdf) that Ben & Jerry’s donate a percentage of pre-tax profits to philanthropic causes, and invite their corporate alumni to decide where the money will go. I could not find confirmation of exactly how this works, but even if it is not entirely true, similar concepts are worthwhile to explore.

This calls for a radical change in the way we think about alumni relations. Alumni managers will depend on many other people in the organisation to make this change happen. Management needs to understand the different dynamics in a connected world, a formalised social media training programme needs to be implemented to enable employees to use external social networks, IT needs to put the technical foundation in place for employees to connect both inside and outside the firewall, and many other steps are also probably required.

If you are an alumni manager, I would like to ask you to challenge the status quo. Think beyond what every other company does today. Think of what could be. Think of alumni as employees that never really left, and then ask how you can create a genuine value exchange to strengthen the ecosystem that supports your firm.

How an organization turned its internal communications upside-down

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Recently I had the opportunity to present one of our case studies at the Social Media for Business Meetup Group in NYC. It was the inaugural meetup, which I am co-organizing together with Daniel Leslie from Reflexions Data. At the heart of the group is, besides networking, the idea to talk about concrete business needs and showcase how organizations have addressed those using social tools. At our first session we looked at internal communications and employee engagement. Presentation below:

The way organizations perceive their ‘human capital’ has apparently changed as well. Most organizations state that they value their employees and welcome active participation. All too often this is in stark contrast to reality. To understand an organization’s true corporate culture it is sometimes best to simply look at the office layouts and technology provided to employees. How can you honestly believe in employee engagement and participation if you lock people into cubicle farms and give them tools that severely restrict them from communicating and connecting freely with each other?

The cafeteria, hallway or watercooler are the only true social spaces in most organizations. That’s where people meet, discuss, learn. If the early KM era has taught us anything at all, then it’s that knowledge can’t be extracted, stored and archived. It was a flawed and in the end a very costly belief. Knowledge is inherently attached to people. Thus, instead of connecting people with documents, we need to connect people with people. And that’s why chatter in cafeterias, hallways and at watercoolers are so important. Check out Gil Yehuda’s observation why smokers seem to know everything and everyone.

Obviously, these offline social spaces don’t scale very well. Social tools reflect better than traditional IT systems how humans really communicate and connect. With those kind of tools organizations do have the possibility to create the digital watercooler and thus take advantage of its benefits enterprise-wide.

Installing social tools is not a challenge. The challenge are people and their perceived risks associated with the usage of those kind of tools. One of those risks for example is gossiping. Well, gossiping is actually an important social activity. It separates the insiders from the outsiders and by that creates a stronger social bond between insiders (thus all employees + management). But apart from that, will people gossip in front of the CEO? No? So, why would they gossip in an open space, where every word is attributable? People might gossip in the hallway, where they can have private conversations, but not on the company’s forum, blog, wiki or what have you. Another perceived risk is that the free flow of communication can be used for creating movements among employees against unfavorable decisions taken by the management.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that internal systems are not the World Wild Web. It’s a controlled environment, and as such comes already with underlying norms and principles. Still, organizations seem to highly distrust their employees and prefer locking them into cubicles and systems willingly accepting the deficiencies of this approach. But the growing discrepancy between the open communication people enjoy on the Internet and the highly restrictive environment people are faced with at work is becoming a major headache for organization.

In my presentation I talked about the case of the law firm Heller Ehrman. The firm got into very rough waters last year and subsequently dissolved. The dissolution did not happen over night. It was a long and painstaking process full of anxiety, fears but also glimmers of hope. Naturally, employees wanted to connect with each other, but most importantly ask for and provide help and support. But the firm did not provide a platform to address these needs. Consequently, one employee set up a WordPress blog on the Internet, which soon became a refuge for his co-workers and probably a nightmare for the firm. If you have time you should read the blog’s Dos and Don’ts – they show in a very plain and honest way that employees are not evil but passionate and caring individuals. If people really want to bad-mouth and spread rumor they will do so using highly visible websites and blogs like ‘Above the Law‘.

Learning from this and other negative examples, progressive organizations are starting to embrace social tools to give people a true platform for engagement, communication and support. I presented the work that we did for the Barnet Council in London. The Council went through a major change management program to meet new needs and challenges. Rather than pushing it down from top to bottom, the Council felt that anyone in the organization should have the possibility to become a change agent and turned the communication upside-down. We installed a system which allows the Council to publish news, but at the same time have an open conversation about new developments. A forum provided the employees with a tool to drive their own agenda and points of interest. Interestingly, the system did allow for anonymity, but that functionality was very rarely used. Included in the platform was the ability to create ad-hoc project spaces to allow the collaboration on specific programs, issues etc.

The technology aspect of the project was not a big challenge, but it did require a bold step by the Barnet Council, trust in its employees and understanding the changing tides in internal communications.

Should knowledge retention be high on organizations’ agenda?

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2008. ]

Yesterday I stumbled across a post by Gordon Ross of Thoughtfarmer talking about a client where 50% of its staff is eligible to retire in the next eight years. What a massive brain drain! But we don’t even have to go that far into the future. Times are tough now. The lists of laid-off employees (here and here) become longer and longer with every day. Even though these are two totally different scenarios, the fact that people and their knowledge are leaving an organization is the same.

Most companies have extensive data backup and disaster recovery plans in store. I think it speaks for itself that companies are still more concerned about machines breaking down than people leaving the company. Axing people now may help to cut costs and survive the economic downturn. However, if companies do not take action to retain the knowledge of people leaving, they will face increased transaction and training costs in the long run.

Obviously, the problem of knowledge retention is not entirely new. It has been on the agenda of knowledge managers for a long time. Early efforts included conducting interviews or documenting everything the employee deemed to be important shortly before leaving the organization. I personally have not read any statistics (or even seen an ROI ) on how fruitful these efforts actually are. However, I can imagine that the success is rather limited, since there are various problems with such formal approaches:

  • What is important to one person is not necessarily important to others.
  • Most knowledge cannot be documented but is inherently connected to people.
  • Questions and documents are inadequate to capture informal conversations or to make social connections visible.
  • Given our short time span, it is very likely to miss important pieces of information when interviews are conducted.
  • If an employee is laid off…

In short, relying only on formal approaches like the ones mentioned above will yield poor results when it comes to knowledge retention. I am not saying that these do not bring any benefit, but it should be clear that an organization needs to take a more holistic and especially timelier approach to knowledge retention. Holistic in the sense of being able to capture/transfer informal knowledge and timely meaning starting today and not when an employee is about to leave. Knowledge retention starts as soon as a new employee comes into the office for the first time. In almost every interaction between people, let it be online or offline, knowledge is created and shared. These interactions are vital for knowledge transfer, as most knowledge is attached to people and cannot be captured in formal ways.

Instead of trying to document everything and controlling knowledge transfer, invest your efforts in facilitating knowledge networking. Allow employees to connect and interact with each other using simple tools. By doing so knowledge is naturally disseminated across the organization. In case an employee leaves the company, there are others that (most probably) carry parts of his work-related knowledge or know someone that knows. In the end, this informal approach to knowledge retention could save the company considerable amounts of money, because people do not have to spend extra time for interviews / questionnaires etc. when leaving the company and new people can get up to speed much quicker, as they can rely on the help and knowledge of the other employees.

I believe that the notion of knowledge retention as a one-off activity in a distant future will soon disappear. Instead, organizations will need to find ways to make it part of employees’ day-to-day work – from their first to their last day at the organization.

That’s easier said than done, but here are some tactics that can help to achieve that:

1) Increase transparency

Large organizations are ‘famous’ for re-inventing the wheel, since the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Give employees smart tools that enable them to easily communicate, collaborate and connect with each other on an organization-wide level.

2) Enable free flow of information

Too often gatekeepers and inappropriate tools are major barriers to information flow. Employees should be able to decide what information is important and relevant to their work.

3) Focus on personal productivity

Employees are primarily concerned about their own performance. Give them simple tools that make them more productive, but which at the same time make use of network effects and benefit the organization as a whole.

4) Get out of the way!

Facilitate but don’t control!

Surely, this is by no means an exhaustive list of tactics. If you have any other thoughts or suggestions on how to tackle knowledge retention, please consider leaving your comment below.