About CASE
Bill Harris

This profile from the September 2004 edition of the BriefCASE Newsletter highlights the career of William K. Harris

Bill HarrisBill Harris has been CEO of Harris Connect, Inc. (formerly the Bernard C. Harris Publishing Company) since 1990, after succeeding his father, Bernard C. Harris.  He has been with the company, which serves more than 3,500 primarily educational institutions and associations, for over 32 years. Bill received an MBA from the University of Connecticut and is a 2000 graduate of the owner/president's management program at the Harvard Business School.  Prior to joining the firm, he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy.

Over time, Harris Connect, Inc. has evolved from just publishing directories to both data services and Internet services. When was this decision made? Was Harris ahead of the changes in technology? 
In 1996, many of us saw the Internet coming down the line. Frankly, we were concerned that online directories would cannibalize print directories. We made a decision that we would rather be the cannibal than let someone else do it! So in January 1997, we started the Internet Services Division. Happily and somewhat surprisingly, the print business continues merrily along. The demise of print that so many expected just hasn't happened because alumni really still want a tangible representation of their alma mater. In addition, from our clients' perspective, no other project can give them so much new information on their alumni at one time. 

The print medium and Internet give one another a synergy that is at times counterintuitive. For instance, we've found that alumni who join an online community are really more likely to buy a print directory than those who do not join online. Simply, it has more to do with the affinity the individual has with their school than anything else. 

In actual use, the online directory is the best way of looking for someone, say, from the class of 1960, living in Chicago, and an architect. It's a specific request expertly handled. On the other hand, when the typical print directory recipient sits down with his or her copy, it's usually for hours, poring over the pages, re-living the past, reading about classmates: Do they have children? Are they married? Are Jack and Mary still together? Then they put it on a shelf or table where it is a visual representation to everyone about their connection to their alma mater. This is very powerful as well.

How prevalent are online communities, or "friend-of-friend" networks, among colleges and universities? What's their impact on educational advancement?
One of the areas that is really hot right now is social networking. This is the process of connecting friends, classmates, acquaintances, etc. to one's own "personal network," and using that network for personal, business or interest-related connections to enrich one's life. Logically, the affinity one has with their school is a good starting place and a number of major institutions have signed up with stand-alone Web providers of this service. 

This is a pretty interesting development for us because, if you think about it, we have embraced and provided social networking for 40-plus years and eight years now on the Internet. The open social networks on the Web, thus far, have proven to be largely dating services and/or status symbols where people proudly display the total number of contacts in "their network." When pressed to find out how many of the "4,000 people" they are actually connected with, the answer is elusive. We believe there is more to it. For us, social networking is the logical extension of an online directory and a robust online community. 

To support our point, we have been introducing popular elements of social networking to our applications-such as class notes, the presentation of notes and directory updates on one's personal log-on page, chapter/club "group" mini-sites, career advice and mentoring-for several years. In this, we have really focused on one-to-one networking. The next logical steps are one-to-many and many-to-many networking. We will, for example, be introducing the ability to share one's personal contacts and message blogs in the months ahead.

Do you see the Internet ever becoming as personal and powerful a tool for fundraising as the traditional methods? Will the Internet replace print? 
We find that, in general, younger alumni use the Internet as their preferred channel of communication. As such, it is a necessity for all institutions to embrace it. That means using it to "engage" in both directions, including fundraising for alumni who prefer it. The real challenge now for all institutions is how to best balance use of the Internet and the print medium. Some of this is dependent on the resources of an institution-staffing, time, money-required to communicate with alumni through multiple channels. It really isn't a case of one being preferred over another. Both are needed. 

We help an institution refine its approach to optimize the communication needs of its constituents individually and uniquely. Online newsletters and class notes, for instance, are easily combined. We push the notes into a new realm. When they are attached to an online newsletter, they become a powerful and personal communication vehicle. You can send the online newsletter personally addressed with the recipient's personal class notes. And, as an example of where the media work together, some of our clients are finding that class notes submitted online now make up the majority of notes published in their printed publication.

Numerous clients have successfully used a multimedia approach and have generated up to six figures of strictly online contributions in one year. It may not seem like a lot today, but when you consider how new this medium is, the rate of growth for online giving is very steep.

Your business is gathering information and making it available to colleges and universities. More and more, people are protective of their privacy. Is this a concern? 
We haven't found it to be a huge cause for worry. Most schools are very responsible as regards the privacy of alumni. They do not abuse it. The move at many schools is to ask alumni for permission to contact them via e-mail. Sometimes they have established subject areas which alumni then select based on their areas of interest, athletics for example. 

In the directory part of our business, most of our contact is via inbound calls from alumni. We moved to this approach several years ago, not for regulatory purposes, but rather because it was easier and more palatable to alumni. 

Do you encounter abuses of privacy? Does this make alumni guarded?
Because both Harris and our clients are extremely careful with data, we are trusted. We have been managing confidential data for 40 years for higher education institutions, and we continually work to prevent abuse. For instance in our print publications, we copyright and seed code names so if there is abuse, we go after it. It's very rare, despite the over 600 titles we produce per year. In the online world, since our communities are closed, abuse is immediately traceable and correctable. I can think of only one case of abuse in seven years.

How important is it for institutions to recover "lost alumni"? 
Finding lost alumni can be very important. Schools readily compare what percentage of lost alumni they have on their files. If a school is willing to invest in re-cultivation, it is well worth the effort. We have stories of lost alumni who end up giving seven-figure donations. In the end, it's an opportunity an institution will never be able to realize if it doesn't "search" for it. One school doing just that is Johnson & Wales. Its latest report card shows the number of lost alumni dropping from 9,700 to 2,000 in the last year.

What about the future? Where is Harris headed? 
We created a third leg of the company two years ago, a data-services division, with the intention of providing our clients the ability to keep their alumni database as tuned as possible between print directory projects and to supplement updates taken online. We do telephone number research, e-mail append services, list "tune-up," and custom modeling to help folks in development identify prospects and targets. There is also more coming from this area in the future. 

Our Internet services continue to broaden our offerings by developing new modules every year. With Yale University we co-developed and launched a module for career networking. We also created an events module, currently being used by more than 25 institutions. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, we provided the application to manage their entire online reunion registration. There were well over 100 activities. 

Are you a computer junkie?
Yes. Absolutely. I'm a faster typist now in my mid-50s than I have ever been in my life. I took one required Fortran computer course in college in the late '60s, and then joined Harris full-time after the Navy in '72. I was naïve enough to think I could program computers myself-and did for a few years! But I hired very sharp staff; they run a huge network for our clients and us. Today, I'm a laptop person and I have a Treo [a handheld communications device that integrates a mobile phone, wireless applications such as e-mail and Internet browsing, and a Palm OS organizer] so I get my e-mails sent to me no matter where I am. My wife doesn't think it's so great. Basically, I'm wired.

What do you love about your work?
My father started this company. Everyone in my family has worked in the business. The first day I worked, I was a sophomore in high school. After all those years, I can say that education is a marketplace that I know and appreciate. There are super people in development and alumni relations. They have devoted their lives to educational advancement and they do their work with a passion and altruism that you don't see in the commercial marketplace.