Effective and Agile
How do we make VU Amsterdam VUture Proof?
The 2020-2025 strategy describes that VU Amsterdam must be effective and agile for the future. Much has happened in that area in the past year. Small successes were achieved such as simplifying the Planning & Control cycle for faculties and departments and drafting the 'Administrative Decision-Making Processes' manual. Meanwhile, the implementation of a new platform for our business processes (MARS) did not go well. Many employees suffered as a result. An external party (Capgemini) conducted research and produced a report on how this could have happened and how VU Amsterdam can improve as an organisation. The report contains pithy conclusions.
At the same time, the report presents us with an opportunity; we can really improve ourselves, in a way we want to. An improvement process started in December 2022, guided by an external consultant from McKinsey & Company and partner Aberkyn. We presented three dilemmas regarding the upcoming changes to some of our employees.
After studying Dutch at VU Amsterdam, Kees Rink returned for his alternative military service more than 35 years ago. He was able to work at the University Library. He liked the work and especially the colleagues made him stay. In all those years, Kees experienced many changes. He has always been very involved in the organisation and a member of the ODC (participation body for faculties and services).
Before joining the Faculty of Law as a researcher and lecturer, Ioana Bratu gained years of experience as a lawyer at a large consulting firm, where she advised organisations in change processes in the legal field. This experience comes in handy now that Ioana, as a representative of the Faculty of Law, is joining the expert team that will advise the change process.
Dilemma: decision-making processes within VU Amsterdam need to be faster and more effective, but the workplace should be more involved in all decisions.
"Yes and yes. Haha. Both need to happen, but you can't do things quickly and involve everyone. It is therefore very important that at least the employee participation body is involved early on. Employees can report their ideas and concerns to the ODC and Works Council members, so that their opinions will weigh in because the Works Council ultimately has to give its opinion on decisions. A complicating factor is that many people in the workplace do not want to be involved in the organisation at all; after all, some colleagues feel that this is not their job and they shouldn’t be bothered with it. Personally, I always like to know what’s going on."
"To make processes in our organisation more effective, we need to start at the core. What is the definition of our culture? Once we are clear about this fundamental basis, we can work on the processes and make sure they are in line with our organisational culture. It is important that the process is logical and transparent, and all stakeholders should be able to participate and give their perspective on this process. If we get this right, it actually ensures that everyone has equal access and participation is guaranteed."
Dilemma: I really want our organisation to improve, but I don't want anything to change drastically in my situation.
"That is a very understandable wish, but that's not how it works. If we change completely, then maybe something will change in your situation too. In general, people don't like change and a common reaction is therefore that when things do change, they want to keep those changes as far away from them as possible.
"The desire to improve our working environment is, I think, shared by everyone. And if accepting a change in a personal situation can contribute to overall and sustainable long-term wellbeing, I think we should be open to it. Transparency of decision-making processes; creating equal access and a safe and inclusive environment can ensure that potential changes in individual situations are better supported and accepted."
Dilemma: logically, as many processes and services as possible should be standardised, otherwise it all becomes far too expensive. Unfortunately, this is not feasible for my department. What we do is very specific, it requires customisation.
"Standardisation and arranging something separately for a department is both possible. The most important thing for this to succeed is for everyone to communicate, which has been a challenge for a long time. Now, one department often doesn't know what another department is doing, so things happen twice or they don't happen at all.
At our library, you can also see that the new way of working has consequences. Although we are physically in the same room, many colleagues work at home for a few days every week, so a lot of contact goes through e-mail or Teams. That flexibility is nice on the one hand but requires extra attention when it comes to maintaining good contact with each other. The Executive Board also needs to inform employees regularly, so that everyone knows what is going on at organisational level."
"I am hopeful of a better organisation. Even though this is not the first time we have gone through such an improvement process, we do have to take it on again and again."
"Our change process should focus on 'equality by design'. While some of our tasks require customisation, we should not forget that ensuring a certain level of standardisation can actually guarantee equality of access, fairness and consistency."
Comment Nynke Rodenhuis, programme lead VUture Proof.
When I read both Kees’s and Ioana's responses and look at what was said during the discussions with the ODCs and the open online sessions in which employees were able to discuss this with the Executive Board, the following things strike me.
Kees rightly mentions the involvement of the Works Council and employees. The Works Council has a structural role in the change process by means of a permanent work group that is regularly consulted. Besides the Works Council, we also need to hear employees who are more distant but affected by the changes. In addition, we have a lot of knowledge within VU Amsterdam in change management and communication, which we will use in the change process.
Another point to note is that people are fundamentally not eager to change. This, of course, also applies to us. Add to this the fact that experiences of change within VU Amsterdam were not always positive for everyone, which is something to take into account. However, doing nothing leads to many people being frustrated and that price is much higher. So we have to make the change.
Ioana points out the importance of a transparent process and the role of communication. This is indeed important. That is why a communications expert is structurally part of the project team. Despite the explicit focus on communication, it is a challenge to reach as many people as possible within VU Amsterdam. We will do our best for that.
Another important principle is that the change process is really aimed at an improvement for our entire organisation. The focus is therefore not on cost reduction; we do not want to compromise on the quality of our core tasks, and our identity, core values, mission and strategy are the starting point.