Recently, LinkedIn's university evangelist John Hill invited me to speak informally to members of the LinkedIn education products team at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters. I was grateful for the opportunity, and I enjoyed the discussion. My main point can be summed up this way:
If alumni offices are going to help alumni, we must be able to use LinkedIn to its greatest possible extent. And to do that, we need to understand what a network is (and isn't) and what makes it work.
My last blog post talked about predicting the future of alumni relations, which relates directly to LinkedIn.
How can LinkedIn help alumni organizations?
First, LinkedIn can lower the cost of sharing information across networks, helping alumni organizations to connect members with the resources they need to solve problems.
A second role for LinkedIn is to reveal relationships. I mean "relationships" in two ways: 1) how two or more people are connected, and 2) causal relationships between inputs and outcomes.
For example, say LinkedIn helps an alumni organization activate a network of experienced entrepreneurs to help less experienced entrepreneurs. Can it predict the most likely, measurable outcomes? Can I understand why those things happened? Can I recreate that outcome in a different setting, for example in a network of non-profit professionals, or alumni living overseas?
I believe the future success of alumni organizations will require understanding our networks, deploying them, and measuring the results.
[the success of alumni organizations requires understanding networks, deploying them, and measuring the results]
Do we understand networks?
There are small, dense networks (e.g., rugby players from the class of '86). There are big, loose networks (law school alumni). This mental model is fundamental to knowing what could happen when you seek information from, or insert information into your network. We should build alumni relations on this simple understanding, yet almost nobody I talk to in advancement is familiar with the basics of network science.
Once we understand some fundamentals of network dynamics, LinkedIn – potentially – can shrink the gap between what we know and what we need to know to be relevant to our alumni.
And understanding networks doesn't mean reading a textbook. Insight into networking can come from literary classics, such as these examples that I have quoted on AlumnI Futures in the past.
- Tolstoy wrote about The Death of Ivan Ilich, who could keep his "professional life discrete from his actual life," disentangling his social and his business networks when needed.
- In Cats Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut's protagonist finds himself chatting with two other Cornell University alumni. But they have nothing else in common, prompting Vonnegut to coin the term granfalloon, which is "a seeming team that is meaningless" – a category that apparently includes alumni groups.
- Finally, Truman Capote gives us Breakfast at Tiffany's. Holly Golightly says she is going to help Paul Varjak, her neighbor, land a Hollywood script deal. How? Well, she says:
Then she explains why she wants to help Paul: because he looks like her brother, Fred.
So on the spot Holly invented a network that exists solely because its members look alike. It's a granfalloon.
[anyone can form any group they want and if it fails,
there is almost no cost]
Why is this relevant? On the surface, forming a business network based on how people look is nonsense. Capote wants to show that Holly is naive and doesn't know how to connect in the real world. You need a real reason for forming a network, a reason that others recognize as legitimate.
That was true in 1958, when he published his novella. But today, it's no longer true. It is so easy for groups to form, thanks to low transaction costs, that today anyone can form any group they want and if it fails, there is almost no cost.
Why does group formation matter?
Because of Reed's Law. In a nutshell, Reed says that as a network grows, its value increases exponentially because it allows subgroups to form. Joining a 20,000 member LinkedIn group is OK. But for an individual, joining a smaller, more personally relevant subgroup holds the greatest potential value.
To your institution, the utility of one particular subgroup may be very small. But a large number of small groups can unlock the value in your community's online network. Remember the long tail?
Why are we not exploiting this function on LinkedIn? Is LinkedIn doing everything it can to unlock the power of small, densely connected networks?
I hope these thoughts provoke discussion about the pros and cons of outsourcing our alumni community-building and network valuation to the LinkedIn platform. With its little known, but very useful Alumni tool, LinkedIn can help school, college and university alumni scale up their network-building efforts. But to participate in that process, alumni organizations must abandon their traditional concepts of "ownership" of the alumni community.
Is it a fair trade off?