This is the third and final article adapted from my alumni relations keynote at CASE V in Chicago (December 2013), Alumni Relations & Advancement's Future: 3 Questions.
"My interest is in the future,
because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."
–Charles Kettering 1946
In the first article in this series, I discussed fundraising's relationship with alumni relations, followed by a look at how the changing student experience will affect alumni relations.
My final question about the future is about prediction itself:
Can we predict future changes in alumni relations?
Where We Go Wrong
Our profession has an uneven track record for anticipating change. Even after a transition is underway, assessing its outcome is difficult. This may sound obvious. But some examples from advancement have surprised me.
Around 1999 a company called zUniversity promoted the premise that "alumni portals" were the future of the Internet. Online retailing did grow explosively in the dotcom era, but we quickly learned that almost nobody would buy books, CDs, or other merchandise by passing through an alumni website on their way to a retailer's site.
Why did many experienced alumni professionals believe that alumni would see their alma mater as a source for everyday retail purchases?
Another example is the massive time, attention, and money that institutions lavished on so-called online communities to compete with Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, LinkedIn and others. Today, all of us have more alumni on Facebook and LinkedIn than we ever had in branded online alumni communities.
[All of us have more alumni on Facebook and LinkedIn
than we ever had in our online communities]
Flaws in our ideas can seem more obvious with hindsight. The approaches I mentioned above drew some criticism at the time, but some of us criticized Amazon, eBay, and the iTunes Store too, and they turned out to be wildly successful. Credit is due to those who are willing to innovate, and take risks on new ideas. Regardless of the eventual outcome, risk-taking grows from speculation about the future.
Is It Bad to Be Wrong?
These kinds of mistakes can be valuable, because they reveal weak spots in our planning and decision-making. And in most cases, these kinds of predictive miscues are rarely fatal.
So how do we learn from our experience?
And how do we predict the future?
Two Prediction Models
1) Ask Relevant Questions
An author I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Clay Shirky, provides a lesson here. In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky described how journalists failed to see the threat to their profession from bloggers. "Blogs," said the news professionals, "are not a legitimate place for journalism. We are credentialed, experienced, and recognized. Bloggers aren't."
But Shirky points out that instead of asking, "Are blogs a legitimate place for journalism?" they should have asked, "Are blogs an alternative to journalism itself?"
The journalists asked the wrong question. They thought they were in the "news" business, but they are really in the communication business – and so are bloggers.
[Are online platforms an alternative
to alumni associations themselves?]
This applies directly to our experience online. For years we asked, "Are Facebook and LinkedIn viable places for alumni organizations to work?" But the question to ask is: "Are online platforms an alternative to alumni associations themselves?"
Instead of asking, "How should we do alumni relations?" perhaps we should ask, "What business are we in? And who are we competing with?"
Our experience with online social networks suggests that we're not in the alumni business. We're in the community business. And our competition is...everyone. This should inform our vision of the future of our alumni relationships.
It also connects to the prime example from our second prediction model:
2) Find the Transaction Costs in Advancement
Nobel Prize economist Ronald Coase provided another useful framework.
Coase, who passed away recently at the age of 102, explored the idea of transaction cost in business. This is not "cost" in the sense of buying and selling, but cost in the sense of the inefficiency of exchanging resources (including information).
Over time, obstacles to the efficient transmission of information tend to decrease and often, to disappear. Any middleman in this process must either become more effective, or eventually be cut out.
A case study is the effect of powerful Internet search on alumni organizations in the last decade.
[Evolution toward efficiency foreshadows the
disappearance of the online alumni directory]
The tendency toward efficiency foreshadowed the imminent disappearance of the printed alumni directory and its online cousins. Although still a middleman, Google is dramatically more efficient than an online alumni directory. Why? Because Google returns search results from an alumna's entire world – not just the alumni network – with no additional effort, and no additional "transaction cost."
Similarly, used as a directory, LinkedIn can tell you who is in the network. But LinkedIn can also tell you how you're connected to each member of the network, making the "cost" of connecting with them (in time and effort) significantly lower.
The alumni office can find your old roommate for you. Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook can find almost anyone – in ten seconds. The alumni organization was previously an aid to interaction. But with our offices, as Shirky has said of many organizations, what was once a service has become a bottleneck.
What It Means
This erosion of transaction costs suggests that most of the services we now provide to alumni will eventually go the way of the printed directory. Matching students with alumni for internships, recruiting applicants for admission, connecting job seekers with employers, and hosting events that connect alumni to their alma mater – all these processes will become more streamlined and eventually the alumni office middleman will be cut out. The question is, over what timeframe will all this happen?
Are we at the beginning of a long, slow effort to maintain our relevance? Or will the rate of change continue to increase, resulting in a total loss of our traditional roles in the near future?
[Are we at the beginning of a long slow effort
to maintain our relevance?]
Not All Doom and Gloom
My goal here is not to sound the death knell for alumni organizations. My goal is to stimulate more wide-ranging, and more future-focused thoughts about our organizations. The changes I mentioned in the first two articles in this series will shape our institutions, but will also result in new roles, new jobs, and new challenges for us – including many that we will fail to predict.
Learning from our past misperceptions can help us read advancement's road map into the future. There will always be changes that we can't anticipate, and developments that catch even "experts" by surprise, as we saw in the first 100 years of the alumni relations profession.
But with common sense, an eye for history, and an appreciation for the unexpected, we may be able to re-invent our profession so that it lasts for another hundred years and more.