He is someone with few gimmicks. A man who wants to stay as close to himself as possible. Hans Nederlof, who took office in August as a member of the Executive Board of THUAS. “Of course I see people looking at me: what kind of guy is that anyway? But I don't want to be put on a pedestal. It's not about me; it's about our students. When I recently left Fontys, they asked me how I wanted my farewell reception to be. Don't go into too much trouble, I said. Beer and bitterballen are enough.” An interview with the new director.
Hans Nederlof holds the Operations portfolio within the Executive Board. His responsibilities include Operations & Control, Facilities & IT and the faculties of Management & Organisation, Business, Finance & Marketing and the two centres of expertise Digital Operations & Finance and Mission Zero. How committed is he to the students, around whom everything at the university of applied sciences revolves?
I think a university of applied sciences is a wonderful place to work. If we do well together here and if we support students as best we can in their journey of discovery and where they are in the lead, then we can have a lasting impact on their lives.
What is the purpose of this?
“A university of applied sciences is also administratively a challenging place to work. I have been active in the public domain all my life. I feel connected to an organisation that has a social mission. Then I don't shy away from complexity. Dealing with complex issues that are also politically sensitive is something I have mastered. Complexity motivates me, stimulates me and sometimes pains me too. It shouldn't be too easy. At the same time, I try to bring complex problems back to the question: what is actually the purpose of this? My day is good when together we have come up with a relatively simple solution to a complex problem. There is such a lovely old saying: simplicity is the soul of efficiency. [Pointing to the back of his head] Those words are on my hard drive.”
My day is good when together we have come up with a relatively simple solution to a complex problem.
Developing talent to the max
If so, he’ll be in for a treat at THUAS. Because there are some big challenges waiting for him. “Yes, we live in an economy that is too big for the available labour capacity. There are simply more jobs than people. It is a major social challenge, for THUAS, for all of education, to develop the talent of young people - no, I am not forgetting lifelong development - to the maximum. In doing so, we have the task of growing as a Higher Professional Education (HBO) from an educational institution to a knowledge institution. That means we need to build a much stronger master's portfolio. We will have a different interaction with the professional field, in which we work together much more on knowledge creation. That also puts the classic internship in a different light, for example. In my opinion, it has become outdated. The development from educational institution to knowledge institution also demands a different balance of competences from lecturers. So that is also impactful internally.”
“I ended up in the wonderful situation here at THUAS, with an Institutional Plan that has just been made. That really appeals to me. I find the focus on sustainability and justice inspiring and daring. Bold, because these inspiring words force you to act accordingly. You can't go back now.”
Connecting more closely
Elisabeth Minnemann, president of the Executive Board, wrote about Hans, saying that at THUAS, in particular, he can help realise his ambition in the field of IT transition. “With his knowledge, experience and ability to connect between education, research and operations, he is an asset to our board.” How does he see this?
“I have only just arrived. With the knowledge of the organisation I have now, I say: my ambitions lie in three areas. I would like us to connect much more to the digitisation needs that exist within education and research. How do we get as close as possible to lecturers, researchers and students with our IT support? They are key to the process. We are not doing the IT transition for the CvB, for the particpatory council, for the departments. The intention is to provide more and better support to the people who study with us, to the lecturers who supervise and share knowledge with them, and to the researchers who conduct research and engage students in it.”
“My second ambition when it comes to the IT transition is that we become more agile, that we become more adaptable to the digitisation issues that arise. We are struggling with that now. The speed of digitalisation in the world around us is faster than what we can currently keep up with.”
The speed of digitalisation in the world around us is faster than what we can currently keep up with.
So, are we talking about the further implementation of data-driven working? “I am somewhat allergic to that term. Everyone uses it and gives it their own interpretation. You record this interview and will elaborate on that later. That too is data-driven working. I sit endlessly reading documents. At its core, everyone does data-driven work. That term doesn’t offer enough for interpretation. But I don't underestimate the importance of data. Data is crucial fuel in the world.”
How do you become IT agile as an organisation? “That’s complex. First of all, it requires agility of people who have to do the work. That is a paradox. IT people often like things to stay the same. After all, that ensures maximum reliability, while they work in a sector where things are different just about every day. People's agility in IT is not always naturally higher than in other professions. We need to create that awareness together.
In addition, the organisation must learn to ask clear questions. If the organisation does not do that, IT people cannot possibly be agile. Because they don't know where the needs lie. Furthermore, process ownership is important. If you do not organise that, you have endless discussions with each other prior to each project that do not lead to a concrete question or assignment. IT professionals cannot get to work without a clear assignment.”
No taking short cuts
The agility Hans talks about is organisation-wide and goes beyond the boundaries of faculties, Centres of Expertise and departments. “Yes, just look at a topic like the flexibilisation of education. That means we will make company-wide agreements that work for everyone and apply to everyone. First standardise, then flexibilise. Furthermore, it is good to have a bit of guts and say: okay, we have heard you all, we have considered everything. We are going to do this. No taking short cuts. No more proprietary, different solutions.”
Administrative guts and inclusion are by no means mutually exclusive
Guts and inclusion
How does that administrative guts relate to inclusion as an important core value within this university of applied sciences? “Inclusion does not mean that everyone should always have their way. Inclusion is wonderful, is for me a sine qua non for a civilised society and good university of applied sciences. Within the university of applied sciences, we look at an issue from all perspectives. In recent years, I have often said: let's not look for a solution right now. Let's have a Socratic dialogue where we ask each other questions until we no longer know the answer. From there, we will work towards deciding and building and see how we can solve things. So managerial boldness and inclusion are absolutely not mutually exclusive.
For example, we also want to be very accessible as a university of applied sciences, regardless of people's background and orientation. That sometimes actually requires guts to actually do it in practice. It is not optional.”
Students not a revenue model
Hans' portfolio also includes finance. Now every academic year, THUAS is very consistent in the percentage of international students. That percentage is under pressure politically. With that, does he see dark clouds looming over THUAS? “No, not at all. Do you know why not? Because I definitely want to fight the link you make in the question. THUAS does not need international students from a financial point of view. Students are not a revenue model for us. Our social mission is focused on them. Again, the question: what is the purpose of HBO? Not to make money from students. But to develop their talent in such a way that they and society derive maximum benefit from it. And that society is crying out for well-educated people. So the more students we can educate, the better.”
“I like working with each other in an open, transparent and honest way, with an occasional bit of self-mockery and, above all, with trust in each other. I realise I say this at a time when many people have absolutely no trust at all in the government anymore. In which thousands of people have completely dropped out. They feel that the government is no longer there for them. I know it is easy for me to talk in my dike house in Northern Brabant with a nice piece of land around it. But those drop-outs have not said: let’s all merely drop out. We do something together as a society that creates that sentiment. We have to solve that together. How do we keep cohesion in society? In the King’s speech, he talked about the fabric of society. How do we keep cohesion in the university of applied sciences? That starts with showing that you can be trusted. It is a matter of giving trust and getting trust back.”