One club you'll never regret joining

Business schools are learning from the US about the value of alumni networks
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The Independent Online

Recently a group of MBA graduates from the Open University business school enjoyed a weekend at Club Med's holiday village near Nice. But they were not just combining a break in the south of France with a spot of light networking.

They were there to talk business strategy. Despite the lure of Nice, most sat happily through lectures from business school gurus and joined in a series of team building exercises. Only half had part of the bill - more than £500 - paid by their employer.

So how typical are these MBA alumni? UK business schools admit that, until recently, the number of former students keen to keep in regular contact or update themselves on the finer points of management theory has been small. But the economic downturn of the last few years has seen schools and their alumni making more of an effort to rekindle old relationships.

There are benefits for both sides. Successful former students may be useful contacts for the current intake. In return, business schools realise they have to offer more than annual re-unions and a contacts database - once the cornerstones of alumni services.

Instead they are providing a much broader range of events - from management workshops to networking seminars. For example, Manchester business school offers long term careers advice, MBA updates and personal development workshops to 7,000 alumni based in over 100 countries. Barbara Beeby, who directs alumni relations for the school, is conscious of the fact that graduates expect more than they used to. "There's been a noticeable increase in services over the last few years. We realise graduates who get more from us will give more back."

The school recently started a new mentoring programme for current MBA students, matching them with alumni in relevant industries. There has been no shortage of former students coming forward to take part "Students gain from professional advice, but the mentors also have a useful addition to their CV and benefit from the experience," says Beeby.

Manchester is not alone in its attempts to get more out of the alumni connection. The Spanish business school Instituto de Empresa uses its contacts with former students in the UK and the US to gain access to international MBA recruiters. "Approaching them for the first time can be difficult," says Boris Nowalski of the school's careers department. "So we use alumni working in target organisations to provide introductions to the right people. It's opened a lot of new doors for us over the past two years." In return, the school offers careers advice to alumni and a programme of international networking events. In the UK, Lancaster University business school has joined with 11 others to provide an MBA graduate career network. Warwick business school has also gone the extra mile - giving alumni online access to journals like the Harvard Business Review and Business Week, and arranging social events at the House of Lords.

The need to help current MBA students find jobs is not the only factor behind the extra boost for alumni services. European schools are increasingly comparing themselves with their counterparts in the US. "The influence of the US has definitely had an effect," says Beeby. "We are very aware of how well the US schools look after their alumni. They are also extremely good at fundraising - something we don't have a tradition of here." In the US, alumni regularly contribute to their alma mater in the knowledge that its ongoing success keeps the polish on their own qualification. In Britain, despite some high profile benefactors such as Gary Tanaka, who donated £27m to Imperial College business school in London and Paul Judge, whose £8m donation helped set up the Judge Institute at Cambridge University, ordinary alumni seem more reluctant to dip into their pockets.

Paula Glason of the Association of MBAs, which runs alumni events jointly with business schools, acknowledges that UK graduates are more likely to offer practical help, but sees a new trend emerging. "An increasing number of MBA graduates are buying into the concept of lifelong learning and are looking to their old business school to keep them up to date with the latest trends in management," she says.

The success of the residential courses run by the Open University business school seem to support this view. Over the past five years they have become increasingly popular - regularly attracting more than 50 participants. Similar events, run jointly with Henley Management College have also been fully subscribed. Christine Sargent of the OUBS says alumni who sign up are not just hoping to network. "Part of it is a desire to re-capture something they gained by studying an MBA - which they can't get from within their own organisation."

Bridget Grenville-Cleave is in charge of a change management programme for the finance department at United Biscuits and brought her husband and 18-month-old son along for the OUBS strategy weekend in Nice. "Making sure your skillset is up to date is increasingly important," she says, "and it's good to get a sense of new ideas bubbling up to the surface. Thinking about how we could apply new ideas and strategies to our own companies is very stimulating."

The Open University attracts a wide range of students, so the weekend saw charity fundraisers rubbing shoulders with directors from large corporates and self employed management consultants. "Mixing with people in other industry sectors definitely gives you the edge when it comes to new ideas," says Grenville-Cleave. "You can't get this kind of networking from your own company environment."

If being part of the MBA club puts graduates a good position to move on in their careers, business schools can only benefit. Everyone remembers the person who helped them on to the next rung of the ladder. "We all want to attract the best students", says Christine Sargent "and our alumni are our best ambassadors."