A common bond

Whether you're interested in waxing nostalgic about the old days, recruiting employees or networking to advance your career, corporate alumni associations offer a golden opportunity.

As job hopping becomes increasingly commonplace, corporate alumni groups have sprung up to offer former colleagues a way to stay connected. The groups span a range of industries, from high-tech to finance to management consulting. Likewise, alumni organizations are highly diverse in terms of members' professions and skills.

When Carole Gunst left Lotus a few years ago, she missed the social and business network she had at the company. So in 1997, Gunst and two of her friends founded the Association of Ex Lotus Employees (AXLE) and set up an electronic Rolodex on an old PC with a dial-up connection. "We thought it would be useful for us and a lot of other people," she says.

They were right. AXLE is now 1,525 members strong, and the group's Web site offers a member directory, job postings, discussion area, events calendar and an online newsletter. The site has become a sort of job clearinghouse for former Lotus employees.

Like AXLE, many alumni groups were started by former employees, not the parent company. Big Blue Alumni International -- BBAI, for example, was formed in 1993 when 93,000 IBM employees took part in a largely voluntary downsizing.

"It made sense to me that we should stay connected electronically," says Linda Anderson, a BBAI co-founder who manages its Web site through her company, Advanced Web Systems in Fort Worth, Texas.

Yet some companies like to be involved with the alumni groups they spawned, particularly in the service industry.

When someone leaves an accounting or management consulting firm, the employer hopes someday to rehire the worker or that the person will refer business his new firm doesn't handle, says Glenn Kaufman, founder of Boston-based Corporate Alumni, which manages alumni Web sites like AXLE's. Organizing an alumni group and hosting its Web site becomes a handy way for the parent company to keep track of these valuable human resources.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), for example, manages its alumni organization of some 3,000 members and maintains its Web site as part of BCG.com. "Our alumni network is very strong," says Kate Gilliatt, manager of alumni relations at BCG. "Our CEO has a real philosophy that joining BCG is a lifelong bond. Many of our alumni are clients, as well."

Former employees of high-tech firms and IT professionals in particular are prime targets for the recruiters who hang around alumni Web sites, Corporate Alumni's Kaufman says. Indeed, a number of headhunters have contacted former Lotus employees through AXLE's Web site and electronic directory, which are open to the public. "Most people are thrilled to be called. We only had one person ask to have his name taken off," Kaufman says.

"Alumni parties are really heavy places for job networking," says Susan Cabral, general secretary for J.P. Morgan's alumni association. But reunions have one drawback: They only happen a few times a year.

Alumni Web sites let members network in a more ongoing and dynamic fashion. And while printed directories are often out of date before they're even publisheed, Web-based directory databases let alumni update their profiles online as needed.

Of course, not all alumni are jumping onto the Web. For example, only about 8,000 to 10,000 out of a total of 200,000 IBM alumni use BBAI's Web site. "We'd hoped for a lot more," Anderson says. She ascribes the low usage mainly to BBAI's large number of retirees, who are less likely to be Web-literate or to access the site for business networking.

And some alumni worry that putting their names, e-mail addresses and job histories on the Web will leave them open to spamming and other intrusions.

"We were loath to put the directory online because people might get harassed," J.P. Morgan alumna Cabral says. "We don't have the energy to figure out a password system." The association sends out a hard copy directory, while members who wish to be contacted are free to post their e-mail addresses on the organization's Web site.

Other alumni associations have addressed the problem with security measures. BCG, for example, assigns unique user names and passwords so it can track activity.

"So far, we've had no problems," Gilliatt says. And BBAI helps ensure its members' privacy by password-protecting message forums.

The ability to have a cozy conversation or trade job tips within a virtual community of former colleagues is perhaps the most valuable thing alumni organizations and their Web sites have to offer members.

And sometimes, what alumni organizations provide for their members is something as simple as the chance to relive a good memory.

"I've heard of people who were dying to get ahold of the J.P. Morgan recipe for Mulligatawny soup," Cabral says.

This story, "A common bond" was originally published by Network World.

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