The Social (Alumni) Network

I was recently reading about beer. Granted, this is not my favorite activity associated with the stuff. But the story in question piqued my interest, because of its implications for leadership of the emergent global workforce.
It seems that in 2011 a pair of recent MBA graduates, one from Germany and one from India, founded a German beer company by the name of St. Erhard. The idea was simpler than a twist top: Distribute German beer in India. “The world—India included—had Heineken and Corona, but no German brands were available,” Christian Klemenz told the Financial Times. “German beer had a great reputation, but you couldn’t buy it. That struck me as very strange.”
Klemenz, a graduate of the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management, had met Vikanshu Bhargava, a student at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A), while on an exchange trip. The German began a business plan project at IIM-A, which Bhargava joined. After graduation, Klemenz decamped to Bavaria, home of the world’s highest density of breweries, and came upon the name of St. Erhard, a local demigod. Crucially, the name is “good and pronounceable” in the Asian market, said Klemenz.
But here’s where the implications for workforce leadership apply. As is so often the case, the biggest challenge was not product, but market access (think transporting food to the needy in roadless geographies.) So Bhargava set to work on local licensing, no mean feat, given that country’s notoriously palm-greased bureaucracy. The solution? Bhargava found two fellow alums who were already in the Indian beverage biz. The result? An active, local marketing department—a vehicle for which most competitors would sacrifice their most secret pilsner recipe.
Off the ground (with Euro investment now in “the mid-five digit range,” according to Klemenz), the pair again leveraged the alumni network to add a business partner in Singapore. Their network also led to some of the investors who put up a Euro stake, which is now in the “small six digits.”
So here’s the question. How many human resources departments can you name that have sophisticated alumni networks? I put that question to a trio of the most experienced and informed members of the provider and analyst community. (It wasn’t done over beers, but the names have been expunged to protect the inebriated.) The answers were pretty much uniform:
“Do I think that most HR departments have sophisticated connections with former employees?” replied the first. “No. I think it’s very, very rare, in fact. But it’s something more should do.”
The second? “A real working alumni network? In a word. No.”
Anyone? “This can be a good idea, if executed well,” said the third, “but I think most do not. Many don’t have a robust or good referral plan in general, let alone alumni programs.”
Think about it, folks. You’ve read all the analyses of the “free agent economy.” No one stays forever. Not everyone leaves for good. What future value are you—or your clients—leaving on the table by failing to build that once-and-future employee network?
P.S. Please do send examples of any such strong and sophisticated networks to me at

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