How alumni can help create a new world of business engagement

By Professor Zahir Irani, Dean, Management and Law at University of Bradford School of Management

Competition from the range of training firms, consultants and online providers is looking evermore viable and creating new competitive frontiers. They can be faster, leaner, more flexible, running free from any larger context of academic responsibilities and bureaucracy and technically 24/7. The situation is being brought into sharper focus by the introduction from April 2017 of degree apprenticeships. HE institutions might be best-placed when it comes to providing the academic quality and kudos of a university degree - but it also raises questions in the minds of employers about what kinds of partners they need, who’s going to be the most adaptable?

The next five years will be a key phase in the development of business schools. Will it be the same old MBA and executive offerings rooted in academic research and publications - or can there be a new world?

Business schools need to prove they can keep taking a lead when it comes to the development of organisations of all sizes (corporates to SMEs), that they matter to markets and economies, that they can be flexible and forward-thinking enough to genuinely integrate with business, and address business needs with impact.

I think alumni and lifelong learning should be the crux of this new world. We need to be developing ‘super-alumni’. The alumni, of course, have been high on the agenda for decades, but maybe not in the right way. We’re fortunate in HE to automatically have stronger relationships with customers than other types of service providers. The independence, credibility and quality of university brands means there’s an in-built pride of association, of being part of something bigger than a commercial service or just seen as a supplier. All business schools want to actively network with their alumni for the sake of building a community and because of the selling opportunities involved. As a result there can be too much of a feel of a club about it - a group brought together for some social occasions with only woolly benefits of being part of the network or community, joined up by events and an occasional magazine that perhaps become less and less relevant.

It’s time to recognise the long-term value of alumni and form a network that plays an active role in the school. From the school side that means providing lifetime development, perhaps for free. Once you’re part of the super-alumni group you know you’ll be able to dip in and out of executive development programmes as they evolve. You’re business-school-powered. The benefits for individuals and their organisations is obvious, and especially with the changes in organisational structures which have meant it's become less about getting a senior job anymore, but more about keeping the job and developing with it.

Business schools can help with this, as well as the more general uncertainty and need for career adaptability. Perhaps in future, organisations might even hire quality leaders and managers direct from the bank of people resources kept sharpened by business schools? Similarly, this fits with the evolving attitudes of employers who are less interested in a legacy of qualifications than the ability of managers to keep learning and wanting to learn, promoting a new generation of reflexive learners.

In return alumni would be expected to provide a regular feed from the frontline of management and give something back to the next generations of students: inputting into lectures, to seminars and workshops; providing real-life case studies for students to work with; offering mentoring; providing opportunities for placements, supporting professional ‘problem solving’ clinics, getting involved with practitioner research. It would all become part of a virtuous circle in terms of the experience of students, the culture of the school, the opportunities for networking, and building those all-important open links with businesses. All of it ultimately leading to further generations of super-alumni, stronger integration and benefits for both sides.