When it comes to a good work-life balance, Father Dermot Tredget has some lessons for MBA graduates. Caroline Haydon reports

Leggett's idea was to provide time out for the alumni - a day contemplating work-life balance instead of failing to achieve it. Events were kicked off by an address intended to raise issues about self-management from Father Dermot Tredget, unusual among his fellows in being not only a former manager at Trust House Forte, but also a former lecturer in business at Surrey University. Participants could ponder the questions during midday prayers followed by a relaxing lunch in the Abbey gardens, and a purposeful hour-and-a-half walk afterwards. Then it was time for in-depth discussion.

The events at Douai are part of a trend for business schools to develop alumni services beyond the now run-of-the-mill networking gatherings, seminars or lectures. Handy, practical additions are basic services (such as free online databases or cheap accommodation rates at the school) but having adopted the habit of looking after their alumni well from top flight American schools like Harvard, European schools are now moving on.

IESE, the long established international graduate school of management of the University of Navarra, has 27,000 alumni in 87 different countries, so it can provide leavers with an impressive, ready to go worldwide network - but it still feels it needs to offer more, and various different opportunities.

Eyebrows were raised when he suggested the Douai idea, says Leggett. "But you have to know how to connect with yourself before you can successfully connect with others. I thought I would run this as an experiment and it worked so well, people are asking for a whole weekend event rather than a day.

"Questions were raised that would never come up in the course of an ordinary MBA or alumni meeting. These people are working 12- to 14-hour days and the push is always to connect with others, so this gave them time to think about personal issues that really matter to them - re-inventing yourself after failure or losing your job; dealing with ambitious colleagues; learning to manage your lifestyle."

Of course alumni have different needs at different times, and associate director of IESE's alumni division Wim den Tuinder, himself a graduate of the school, reckons there are three stages people go through. In the first, as a recent graduate, people are keen to build contacts and find a job; in the second , older graduates seek educational opportunities to broaden their knowledge, and in the third, he says, these two tend to balance out.

Nonetheless, he puts education above networking as the most important benefit of his alumni association. "All our events have some learning component," he says. "That's the core of the institution's business, after all, and events need that element to be relevant to people. Networking wouldn't just work on its own. Trying to maintain an organisation through a dinner here and a cocktail party there wouldn't work in the long term."

What IESE and other schools are now increasingly trying to promote are what they call "added value" networks, hopefully virtuous circles of students and alumni interacting in a range of activities that offer far more than the cocktail circuit ever could. Professor Christophe Bredillet heads the postgraduate programme at Lille Graduate School of Management, one of France's Grandes Ecoles of management. He encourages a two-way system - alumni come in to the school (participating in committees developing course strategy, for instance) and students go out - working alongside former students in the companies that now employ them, on research projects of benefit to those companies. "It's a service to the companies those alumni have now joined," he says.

Like Wim den Tuinder, Bredillet sees the benefits of alumni activity as stretching way into the future, rather than simply being something it is useful to do for a couple of years after you leave. In fact, he finds that in France new graduates often don't pick up on the benefits for a few years, and he puts this down to cultural differences. "In the UK and America there's a very strong tradition, a commitment, to being members of an association in the sort of way that doesn't exist in France," he says.

So are there other reasons to join an alumni association? They are certainly good at answering to the specific needs of certain groups, as women graduates of the London Business School (LBS) have found. Lisa Duke, chair of the LBS Alumni Women's International Network, graduated from the school in 1995. Now she hosts sessions designed to allow women to reconnect with each other and discuss issues like re-entering business after a career break or changing career. "Women have a lot of competing demands," she says. "Women-only meetings where we can talk these things over are hugely important."

And at ESADE Business School in Spain, which has always prided itself on a vast network of international relations, including strong Latin American and Asian networks, the alumni association has recently spawned a new offshoot, the China Business Club. Ying Ying Zhan, a lecturer at ESADE and president of that club, says that while Chinese investment in Europe has increased hugely in the last few years, there are still big differences in cultural and business practices that can trip people up.

"For instance Chinese businessmen do not point out what they think directly," she says. "This can cause misunderstanding and distrust. I helped a Spanish company which had been trying to complete negotiations with a Chinese company for more than six months, but nothing was happening. I organised a face-to-face meeting to simplify procedures and after less than two months everything was sorted."

The China Business Club now takes its place alongside more regular offerings to ESADE alumni - directory services, career guidance and continuing education, as well as more traditional events such as the Sailing Regatta, the Golf Circuit or the Paddle Tennis Championship. In the competitive world of the business school, alumni services are re-inventing themselves.