Beyond nostalgia: Identity work in corporate alumni networks

Beyond nostalgia: Identity work in corporate alumni networks

Beyond Nostalgia: Identity Work In Corporate Alumni Networks. Alumni networks are commonly thought of as communities of former university students who...

Alumni networks are commonly thought of as communities of former university students who maintain contact to each other and to their alma mater by meeting annually and sharing memories about the good old days. However, this phenomenon has extended to the professional sphere, and corporate alumni networks are now flourishing in all sectors of the economy. The alumni networks of large firms such as AT&T, Procter&Gamble, Coca-cola or IBM can count up to tens of thousands members worldwide. These networks are used for social, but also for business purposes such as finding suppliers, recruiting staff members or building new business partnerships. However, despite its obvious importance for the business world, this phenomenon has not been the object of much attention from academics.

Previous research looked at the causes and consequences of people’s attachment to a past corporate setting. They show that organizational factors such as the company’s prestige or the networks’ efforts to maintain a link with former employees (by publishing an alumni directory, organizing events, etc.) as well as individual factors such as the employment duration in the company influence people’s continuing attachment to a past setting. Existing research also showed that the more people are attached to a past setting, the more they will be likely to provide benefits to this company and ex-employees of this company, for example by offering fee reductions or favouring them as partners for new business ventures.

Our research adds new knowledge by giving an account of the lived experience of corporate alumni network members. Specifically, we study how members of corporate alumni networks make sense of their attachment to a past setting, and how they sustain in the present time such an identification with the past. We show that they conduct an active ‘identity work’ that keeps their past experience vivid in the present time. Besides expressing nostalgia for the “good old days”, our study show that members of alumni networks seek to reproduce, validate, or combine elements of a past professional experience in their current professional identity. For example, we show that some alumni will seek to reproduce the past setting by creating their own firm and replicating the past company’s modes of functioning, or by hiring other alumni that they can meet in the alumni network. By doing this, they thus diffuse the practices and culture of a company they no longer work for, sometimes decades after leaving.

Beyond academia, our study clearly appeals to a wide audience of practitioners. Our study results can be of interest for alumni network managers, as it allows them to get a better understanding of alumni members’ lived experiences. It can be also be inspiring for business leaders, as we shed light on how the past may influence the present ways of doing and acting of people at work. This last topic is of particular importance as life long employment with the same firm is no longer the norm, which entails that individuals must cope with an increasing number of past experiences that influence their present behaviors and attitudes. The content of this article should thus also resonate with a wide audience of practitioners who are alumni themselves and would appreciate a research perspective on their experience.

By Thibaut Bardon, Audencia Nantes School of Management, France

The article has been co-authored by Emmanuel Josserand, CMOS, University of Technology Sydney and Florence Villesèche, Copenhagen Business School

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