This article was written by an AIESECer, but not me.
“- Excuse me, I heard you said you are in AIESEC?
– Yes I am.
– I’m not sure if I know what is this about.
– Well, …”
Have you ever had a situation when you found it difficult to explain to others what AIESEC truly is? If not, please be my boss 😉
These moments have made me thinking why so? Moreover, after leaving AIESEC I’ve been observing people who have left the organisation two, five, ten years ago. And surprisingly they are more likely to remember (or even recommend) AIESEC rather than their recent corporate (‘professional’) engagements.
Is AIESEC really special and unique? If yes, why is that? What makes it stand out from other organisations?
Beside traditional opinions like enthusiasm and energy of its members or passion in everything we do, which are definitely included to ‘the recipe’, but not limited to, here is my attempt to unfold why AIESEC is so hard to explain, and so hard to forget once you dive in.
All kinds of research clearly show the effectiveness of different types of presenting/absorbing information: we learn only 10% by listening and reading, up to 30% by using visual effects, and approximately 50% by observing actions or a demonstration. And around 90% (!) by doing. But surprisingly what science knows, education system doesn’t.
Young people naturally feel the modern system of typical education doesn’t correspond to the needs of the World anymore. The business and society have evolved dramatically, however the education system hasn’t changed much. Obviously, there is a difference between local unknown business school in Kazakhstan (I guess I can speak on their behalf) and world’s top ones – case studies, global network, diversity – you name it. However there are minor distinctions if you look at their approach at large – they all teach you from the perspective of ‘expertise’, they anchored in the world of ‘knowing’ instead of developing an ability to let go and invite the new. What if our traditional education was more about learning and less about teaching? What if it was more about supporting a learner on his journey instead of delivering predetermined content? So in that way AIESEC seems to me as a business school (or a school of any kind) with no professors; no teaching, but learning; no students, but AIESECers.
I personally don’t see how anybody could learn how to do anything sitting in the classroom and listening somebody’s talk! We just feel we could learn way more being in AIESEC by doing stuff (sometimes by escaping classes at the Uni). In AIESEC ‘kids’ learn business by creating a business. You learn project management by actually doing projects. No doubts, experience teaches slowly and at the cost of mistakes. And sometimes you pay terrific bills for those mistakes, nevertheless this is the only way to learn and get something out of it. So in that sense, AIESEC is an ideal playground. You can test your ideas, find like-minded people, experiment and have a relatively small loss. As I recently heard the phrase I’m very much connected to: “We are actually Students of AIESEC and just members of our Universities”.
My guess is that in AIESEC we unconsciously care more about doing right things and then trying to figure out how to do those right things in a right way.
This entire experiential learning journey brings you to a condition when you have evolved to a person with varied sort of skills or capacities:
- ability to sense, to be flexible,
- feeling what is really needed in the World,
- alignment between intention and higher purpose,
- whole system awareness
- suspension and letting go
- dealing with uncertainty
- whole self-awareness
I firmly believe these are fundamental capacities that are greater and more needed nowadays than traditional skills like time management for instance.
In AIESEC you explore and develop yourself by creating opportunities for others.
When an employee is a customer.
Experiential learning would have not been possible without a unique business model where an employee and a customer is the same person (ideally). Moreover, it is not the model where you create an experience for yourself only and end up being disconnected – we all create experiences for each other and undergo them altogether. In this way AIESEC reminds a smaller copy of the World that is profoundly interconnected – it is a self-sustaining system (that’s why sometimes we say – “we live in AIESEC bubble”).
Picture a traditional company that has employees on one side and its customers on another. Once employees delivered a product or a service they are quite disconnected from it. On the other hand, when customers buy this experience they don’t have emotional connection towards its development, only towards consumption and usage. They also have different (and sometimes even opposite) bottom-lines and interest.
Whilst in AIESEC you create experiences for other AIESECers. For instance, if you are in the team of organizing an international conference, you create many experiences for people from over 100 countries, where one of them might be so inspired that going back home he/she might raise an internship you could go for. It is relatively closed network with no clear distinction between two major stakeholders: customers and employees. You deliver and receive the same product. The product is AIESEC Experience. No matter which function or project you are in, all your efforts are focused to enhance AIESEC experience as a whole. And what do you get as a return? Simple – AIESEC experience.
Purpose beyond profit.
Certainly there is one more aspect when it comes to AIESEC experience business model. It is a Non-for-profit. It doesn’t mean we do not raise funding – as any kind of organisation AIESEC has fixed costs and other expenditures. It simply means profit is not our primary focus.
In other words, what really makes AIESEC different is that we massively focus on product by making money for that, instead of making money by creating a product alongside. We eat to live, and not live to eat. We put our human soul first. And we make decisions by our hearts, not by our stomachs (even though sometimes we are “hungry”, if you know what I mean 😉 ).
AIESEC operates in the notion of social enterprise and that invisibly leaves the entire organisation with the space for making more conscious decisions in terms of organisational strategy and supporting processes. There is no secret, it also creates financial shortage and some of the decisions might be influenced by this bondage. However, conceptually it doesn’t create bottom-lines’ conflict when the one is driven by maximizing profit only.
We also have to presently decide whether we are a student organisation run like business, or we are a business run like a student organisation.
On the other hand, according to my personal experience when, firstly, you are short in money and secondly, you are deeply passionate and firmly believe in what you do so you have to finish whether a project or a conference, your brain simply starts working in a totally different level. I call it ‘finish or die’. All of a sudden, new perspectives start to rise, you see more ways where to get money or who else to approach, what else to offer. To put it simply, enthusiasm, creativity, imagination and courage start to co-create something new that was not able to emerge before. Usually (and unfortunately), it doesn’t really work that way in the corporations when the budget is actually available. Roughly, financial rewards help to increase efficiency, not effectiveness.
Values-based and driven processes.
When you don’t have financial resources and, hence, a compensation system for your employees, it might seem hard (read: impossible) to retain people and keep certain level of motivation. This is a very corporate linear way of thinking. This is not how AIESEC works (thankfully). More on that, all studies show once the task requires systems thinking, an ability to deal with complex models and seek for conceptualized solutions, ‘the higher I pay – the more you should work’ model simply doesn’t work, and shockingly, most of the time it is opposite. Yes, people stuck in their minds and unmotivated to pursue any further. It works only when the task is very narrowed and linear (operational).
But my major point here is when you don’t have money or let’s say money is not a principal driver, there should be something else you could connect members with. Organisational culture, behaviors, shared vision and values – you got the picture. There is one more thing that lies at the bottom and drives fundamentally – is the genuine belief in the opportunity to make a difference and positive impact.
From my observations, in AIESEC it works organically – current members recruit new people based on values and ‘right’ worldview, even though they might not have established competency-based recruitment processes. It just feels right. So after all, the Culture and Values are sustained over longer period than one spends in the organisation. (although it might change if more and more people would have ‘wrong’ perception of what AIESEC is about and will continue to attract others into it).
Having said that, I don’t think AIESEC is for everyone, at least not at the moment, not in our generation. Everyone should have an opportunity to experience it though.
Designing an organisation that has purpose beyond profit, where its members live day-to-day life by values and shared vision, where everyone is learning by doing and playing in order to have a positive impact on society and, ultimately, people around them, creates a unique atmosphere and energy where strong sense of belonging starts to appear, you feel anything is possible and you are not alone on that journey.You essentially work for something that bigger than yourself. Your better ‘me’ eventually makes a better ‘us’. You simply find it meaningful and worth doing…
Sometimes you catch yourself in disability to explain why exactly you are in AIESEC. From the perspective of short term benefit – you don’t earn money, you sacrifice your classes and not so many companies would even recognize it in your CV afterwards – it simply doesn’t make any sense! But your inner voice speaks in a whisper ‘it is right’.
Imagine yourself as a grandparent and your grandkids running over to you and ask a question:
“-Mom told me you were in AIESEC when you were in your twenties! How was it?!”
Suddenly, your eyes become softer, lots of memories start to pop up in your mind – conferences, faces of friends from all over the World and after some silence you go with the smile on your face:
“Well, AIESEC is something you have to experience…”
I call it AIESEC Phenomenon.
AIESEC. It makes a difference.