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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Scotland needs to enlist its hidden alumni army

There are ambassadors all over the world who would help rebuild our image abroad

THE SIXTH ANNUAL ‘Scotland International’ forum kicks off at Gleneagles tomorrow. This gathering is not as mysterious or secretive as it is sometimes portrayed – it is not, as has been rumoured, the annual council meeting of the ‘Scottish Mafia’. There are no secret ceremonies or funny handshakes. It does however carry some clout – last year’s event triggered a public debate about the future of Scottish Enterprise which led to a major government review followed by significant restructuring.

The attendees, by invitation only, and at their own expense, are the leaders of internationally oriented Scottish businesses, universities and government; or leading international Scots. The intention is to consider the position of Scotland in the world and, if possible, take practical action to improve it. It is this group that set up Scottish Knowledge, a company which has since been very successful in selling courses and qualifications from Scottish universities around the world, and which last year attracted strategic investment from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

One of things Scotland International is set up to combat is the odd characteristic about the Scots in that they don’t naturally tend to network internationally. Most cities in the world seem to have an ‘Irish Bar’ full of people who claim Irish ancestry, but every bar in the world seems to have one lone Scotsman sitting in the corner. When you do business internationally it soon becomes obvious that the Irish, French, Israeli and Hong Kong Chinese all actively use their international network to their common advantage. It seems extraordinary that the Scots, who historically have been one of the most internationally entrepreneurial groups, don’t do the same.

Maybe this is because, historically, those Scots with ‘get up and go’ have ‘got up and gone’ and are only too pleased to leave the old place behind. As markets have become more global, and means of communication more effective, it is less significant where you are physically located but it may be that their image of Scotland is stuck in some kind of time-warp: a Scotland of declining industries such as shipbuilding or steel, and not the growth innovation industries of electronics and software.

Scotland does have a strong international image, but it tends to be attached to traditional products such as whisky and bagpipes, rather than high-tech.

The week after Dolly, the world’s first cloned mammal, had been announced by the Roslin institute, I attended a technology conference in California. It was a subject of some puzzlement and amusement amongst the Americans that such a world-shattering scientific breakthrough had come from such an unlikely location as Scotland. The fact that Scotland creates many more scientists and engineers per head of population than the USA is not widely known, and initiatives such as the ‘Scotland the Brand’ campaign, which emphasises traditional values, don’t do much to help.

The Irish, with a similar heritage, have been tackling this situation head-on, and by measures such as investment in education, and targeting high-technology industries to set up R&D facilities, have built an image of an country firmly based in the new economy.

So how do we rapidly change the image of Scotland? I suggest we should be using our hidden ambassadors around the world, the graduates from our Universities: the ‘Scottish Alumni’. Most people have happy and positive memories of their time at University and our graduates from 20 or 30 years ago are now at the peak of their professions around the world. Many of them would like to stay in touch with Scotland but communicating with alumni, which is a priority at most top US Universities, is something of a Cinderella in Scottish ones. Largely, it is done by occasional glossy publications printed and then mailed to the former graduates. This is both very expensive and ineffective – alumni often find these publications to be largely irrelevant and they quickly go in the bin.

I suggest that all the Scottish Universities should set up collective management of the communications with their alumni – contacting them all regularly by email and web, and keeping them up to date with their former university and with developments in Scotland. By working together the Universities could afford a high quality service. The messages could be targeted at their interests, keeping them up to date with their old department, their home town, or even with local sports results if they wish. The result would be to create a strong international community who would be kept up-to-date with developments in Scotland.

We might well see many of these global alumni becoming increasingly involved back in the Scottish economy – as advisors or mentors, non-executive directors, even as investors, in new Scottish growth businesses, and helping them to think globally as they grow.

Who knows – we might even see the development of ‘Scots Bars’ in cities around the world.

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