Scalable, Authentic, And Manifold: How To Maximize The Business Impact Of Your Corporate Alumni Network (Part 2)

Christian Mencke

Part 2 of the three-part series, “Scalable, Authentic, and Manifold.” In this blog, we will discuss best practices for leveraging network authenticity by managing network trust.

In my previous article, I shed some light on the role of a network’s size in increasing network effectiveness. It turns out that pure network growth without simultaneously taking care to create a stable and ideally trusted network could lead to weakened network dynamics – or even worse – to counter-effects. Here are some thoughts about what you can do to maintain a healthy trust level within your network.

Personal authenticity can be considered a fundamental source of personal trust. When it’s gradually generated with transparency about motivations through honest and regular communication and consequences in actions, authenticity leads to predictable and trustworthy patterns of behavior.

As part of its regular employee surveys, SAP measures its Employee Engagement Index as a measure of employees’ commitment, pride, and loyalty. The higher the value, the more likely and effectively employees will act as authentic advocates for the company. In 2018, the index was a quite excellent 84%. In a slightly adjusted but still comparable way, we measured an analogous Alumni Engagement Index of 82%. This index shows that SAP alumni continue to be committed to their former company. Based on this continued positive attitude towards SAP, they will act within and be perceived by their personal networks as authentic advocates in a way comparable to active SAP employees.

Now, if authenticity is a source of personal trust, and an alumni network consists of authentic advocates with a positive attitude towards their previous company, we can increase network effectiveness by establishing opportunities to build the level of personal trust across the entire network. With authenticity, a trust-building source is available, so the key is to leverage this source smartly.

A proven way to do this is to offer opportunities for personal exchange. In an increasingly virtual (business) world, it may appear like a bit of an “old-school” approach, but at SAP Alumni Relations we are convinced that regular in-person get-togethers are worth the – admittedly considerable – investment. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the primary purpose of alumni reunions should not be to bring together those who already know each other quite well. The event design should catalyze the emergence of new connections within the alumni community to bring the respective personal tier-2, 3, … N networks closer together.

Don’t forget: If alumnus Alice gets to know alumnus Dan at a local alumni event, this is nice and helpful. But, as both are already convinced evangelists of their previous employer, the additional business impact for the company is limited. The full potential of alumni relations unfolds once Alice introduces Dan to her peer Benjamin, in case Dan and Benjamin have complementary business interests related to the company. Alice is willing to take on the risk of losing credibility when she brings Dan in touch with her personal network, as she can expect that he will be authentic and trustworthy.

A comparable but less costly mechanism to increase the level of personal trust across the entire network is to leverage the member directory of your alumni portal. It should be convenient to use, and you should motivate your alumni to keep their profiles up to date and complete. By regularly communicating successful networking or “matchmaking“ results into the community, you can increase their motivation to keep their information up to date.

A kind of “intelligent” matchmaking functionality within the alumni portal – by automatically comparing profiles – might bring members with complementary interests together in a more efficient way.

However, when considering measures like these, an important guiding principle must be kept in mind: Successful (alumni) network management is – by rule of thumb – 30% organization and 70% incitement to self-organization. Thus, the goal is to enable your network to match, connect, communicate, and build trust, while resisting the temptation to massively push in the direction that you consider to be most important. It’s more about trustful nudging rather than about mechanistic pushing. And the fact that you won’t be able to fully foresee and steer the direction the network will take is the price to pay for harvesting the potential of your alumni network.

Developing a network towards a high level of self-organization should be a standard principle of effective network management. However, following this “Golden Rule” becomes even more important the more variety there is in the network. The reason is obvious: A higher degree of network variety goes along with a higher degree of network complexity, and the more complex it is, the more difficult it is to steer the network “from outside” with mechanistic, external impulses towards a desired direction.

Based on the high variety of SAP’s alumni network, in the next post, I will share some thoughts about how incentives to self-organization can help keep network effectiveness high in an overwhelmingly complex network environment.

Read part 1 in this series for some background on developing a successful employee network.

Christian Mencke

About Christian Mencke

Dr. Christian Mencke is Director/HR Project Expert Alumni Relations at SAP SE. In his role he focuses on management and strategic development of the trust-based “SAP Family” network of former SAP employees towards a vital community of enthusiastic brand ambassadors, convincing business developers, authentic feedback providers and an exclusive talent pool. Prior to that he worked on business, strategy and organizational development of SAPs Partner Ecosystem as well as for other large and medium-sized enterprises based on an internal and external management consulting background. Christian studied Economics and Social Sciences at Leuphana University, Germany, and holds a PhD in the subject of trust and networks in a business context.