Last week I spoke at two events in Europe. First, Illuminate Consulting Group (I'm on their academic advisory board) and the Chronicle of Higher Education teamed up to deliver a day-long seminar for senior university leaders from the UK, Australia, Canada and other countries. Imperial College London hosted the program, titled How the Global Economic Crisis is Shaping Competitiveness Ten Years Out: International Recruiting, Research and Relationships.
The presentations generated thoughtful discussion and useful insights (for me, anyway). Here's a brief general treatment of one specific idea for readers of Alumni Futures.
It's Time We Learned About Network Science
Both meetings last week consisted of multiple presentations stitched together by a single thread: how networks behave. Many of the discussions were built almost entirely on the idea of the many networks that hold together the educational disciplines: alumni networks, student networks, academic networks, research networks, business or professional networks – and of course, social networks.
This theme occurs more and more frequently in our professions, and that's one reason I write about it here. But mostly, I think it can help us be more effective at maintaining a useful role in the lives of alumni. (I also just think it's interesting.)
But only one of the presenters I heard explicitly acknowledged that we were talking about the formal aspect of how members of networks behave, influence each other, and relate. Of course, for decades (centuries, I suppose) we have known that we belong to networks – families, companies, towns, sororities, sports teams, graduating classes, political parties, religious groups, and more. But only recently have the structure, behavior and characteristics of networks under different conditions become a systematic scientific pursuit.
The mathematics behind network science is beyond me (which won't surprise anyone familiar with my academic achievements in that field). However, there is a wealth of accessible literature that explains in understandable ways what we do know about networks, and it is past the time for fundraising and other advancement professionals to learn about the simple ideas that underpin network science. Learning about scale-free networks, power law distributions, Metcalfe's and Reed's Laws, and more has completely changed my understanding of what alumni and student networks are, and what their members can do with them.
We constantly talk about "the alumni network" but I don't think we have a very good idea what a network really is, how it works, what its potential value is, and how networks evolve. Even common sense observations seem to be beyond some (otherwise sensible) people's ability to understand. For example, people often blame the network when they don't get results – in a job search, a business deal, or a simple referral. I've heard this from people who had recently joined LinkedIn, expecting job offers to appear with no effort on their part. One speaker in London said, "Networks don't fail. Network members fail." With a few specific exceptions, I think this is generally true.
Below are links to some general resources that you can use to get started thinking about networks. If you have your own favorite sources of information on this topic, or constructive criticism of the ones I've listed, please share links or citations in the comments.