Over the past year or so, I have spent many hours with individuals working at medium to large organizations talking about the virtues of implementing and managing an alumni network. These individuals range from C-Suite Executives to Marketing professionals to HR professionals. In every discussion, I am asked the same question: “Which function should our alumni programme ‘sit’ in – Marketing or HR?”
Great question! In my experience, this really is an important question to explore up front.
If your sole focus is talent management i.e. ‘boomerang’ hires, potential candidate referrals, mentoring/coaching opportunities, my answer is straightforward: the network should strategically and operationally be managed within your HR function. Similarly, if your network is driven purely by a strategic relationship management and business development agenda, my answer would be Marketing or Business Development.
From experience, however, there is usually a minimum of two business drivers for developing and managing an alumni network. These are typically driven from the overall business strategy with different functions leading to the execution of the different objectives.
For example, let’s say your organization is keen to explore how an alumni network can support its brand reputation, its direct recruitment strategy, and its growth strategy. You want to engage the alumni community to create brand advocates; you’d like to attract alumni back into the organization as employees, and your business depends on revenue growth and is looking to this community for future clients or customers. Where should the network and team manage this sit now? Who is ultimately responsible for the delivery and success of this programme?
When you’re looking to develop a programme and network which supports more than one strategic business objective, the answer is most definitely not straightforward!
Let’s unpack this further. Before we do, let’s remember that a successful alumni network programme is mutually beneficial – it is not a one-way relationship. It must provide value back to the individuals within the community as well as provide a return on investment for the organization.
So, is HR the best function strategically?
There are many positive points for managing your alumni programme out of HR:
- The ‘exit’ or ‘leavers’ process is likely managed by HR
- The current employee data is managed within the HR function
- The recruitment team and processes are managed within HR
- You may see this alumni network as an extension of your employee network
- You may extend existing employee benefits to your alumni
What about Marketing and Business Development?
There are some strong arguments for an alumni programme to be managed within Marketing and Business Development:
- Strategic relationship management initiatives are managed within the Marketing and Business Development function
- Brand positioning, external messaging and communications, and campaigns are developed in marketing
- Some of your alumni will be clients already – and you will be communicating with them as clients/customers
- Both marketing and business development skillsets are needed within an alumni team (identifying key differentiators, messaging, content production, event promotion/management, building relationships, prospecting, lead management and so forth)
An alumni network can be operationally managed by either HR or Marketing. However, it must deliver against objectives that might not normally align to the function it ‘sits’ in.
Most organizations will choose one function over the other to ‘manage’ the programme. Whichever function is chosen, I put it to you that it should be supported by a Board or Senior sponsor, be managed and run by a team whom possess the skills required for community engagement, stakeholder management, project management, data analytics, and relationship management. Collectively, they should have an understanding of both HR and Marketing/Business Development. It can be a tall order!
I’ve been pondering on this topic a lot and I’m beginning to think there might be a more strategic and efficient solution…
Perhaps, the question isn’t about an alumni network being managed and delivered by HR or Marketing. What if we consider the notion that as a strategic relationship programme, an alumni network, above all else, supports the brand and relationship management objectives first (i.e. alumni first!), with the other programme objectives across business growth and the talent agenda having equal weighting thereafter?
When put like this, I believe an alumni programme might be best aligned to a Corporate Strategy or External Affairs function and co-delivered by HR and Marketing. This approach would embody the “One-Firm” concept, where these functions are committed to common goals and collaboration, thereby breaking down the traditional ‘silos’.
As Reid Hoffman said in an article he posted in LinkedIn in 2014:
“In sum, the more a corporate alumni network strengthens the company’s brand, the easier it becomes to leverage that network for hiring, network intelligence, and customer referrals.”
Food for thought…and I’d welcome your thoughts, views, and comments.
About Martine Davies
Martine Davies is the Director of Strategic Relationships and Networks Ltd, an independent consultancy practice which focuses on supporting organizations to create and deliver mutually beneficial community and alumni networks.
Martine has spent the most part of her working life developing and delivering strategic relationship programmes and she has a keen focus on corporate and institutional alumni programmes. She is passionate about developing networks which create value for the individuals in the network and provide real results in terms of return on investment for organizations.