AHOVOKS: ‘Just connect with our story.’

Posted on 06-06-2018

"The way StreetwiZe organises their workshops forces employees to step out of their daily routine. After a year collaborating with  StreetwiZe, our people take initiative, responsibility and ownership." Ward Dejaegher from AHOVOKS reflects on a year-long StreetwiZe experience.

A few words to explain it all. AHOVOKS, the Agency for Higher education, Adult education, Qualifications and Student grants (Agentschap voor Hoger Onderwijs, Volwassenonderwijs, Kwalificaties en Studietoelagen) is one of two executive agencies within the Flemish ministry of education and formation. The people at AHOVOKS manage the operational budget and pay the salary of the higher education and adult education personnel. They also arrange student grants, put together the final attainment goals, arrange the accreditation of foreign degrees and form up the high school exam commission and organise the entrance exam for doctors and dentists. It employs around 260 officials and around 100 other diverse staff. And around 200 extern people work in the exam commission.

"Our internal profile is very diverse," confirms Ward Dejaegher. Ward is the HR business partner from the agency. "Case handlers, administrative officials, technical staff, a communication team, … we got everything." From one you want expertise. From the other you expect team building. But if we want to realise our goals as an agency and as a government, then everyone has to work together to make it happen, everyone has to take initiative… We need people who breathe our vision and who can translate that vision into concrete actions… To put it shortly, we need entrepreneurs.

Digital disruption

The government already made a lot of progress in digitalisation. But up until now it mostly consisted of digital support for existing operations. The new era of digitalisation coming at us now is completely different from the one before. Ward Dejaegher: "Some processes don’t need human interference anymore. Up until a few years ago, our people had a programme in which they handled every student grant application individually. Today the programme takes care of one out of three applications automatically. This puts a new kind of pressure on our staff. You need specialised people to develop and maintain these systems. Although, the standard case manager’s job also becomes more and more of a challenge: you have to be able to solve those issues that can’t be digitalised. The professionalism of these people needs to be complemented with a healthy dose of creativity and entrepreneurship. Someone has to start building this automatisation. Monitoring teams changed completely. Leading people changed completely. A lot of people who got used to their job content will have to change to a context in which work disappears and reappears in a different shape. Managing profiles no matter their rank need to steer towards results and trust."

Digitalisation is only one of many vectors of change, Dejaegher says. A second vector in full evolution is students’ expectations. People go study here for a year, then go somewhere else next year. They are in control of their study career and combine what interests them the most. They easily combine different curricula, go to the exam commission or study online at universities like Harvard. There is more flexibility in the learning path. And people want to be recognised for every acquired competence. A third vector is the new role the government plays. The times the government dictated everything are long gone. There are a lot more different voices that need to be heard. We have to communicate a lot more, we have to bring people together, we have to network, we have to listen and we have to focus on the customer.

The key question

I ask him ‘which problem statement did you put to the table in your first interactions with StreetwiZe?. ‘Our first goal was to help our people acquire new skills and guts,’ Dejaegher Says. Everyone is expected to help steer the organisation, to take initiative and to take responsibility. But a lot of our people had difficulties in doing so. We also wanted to clarify the expectations of the organisation. We wanted to show that we appreciate people standing op and saying: “I have an idea.” We wanted to create an ideal environment, aimed at creating and realising ideas. Some people still felt that they were putting their neck on the line. Showing that we do expect initiative, was also the goal.

I ask Dejaegher why he selected StreetwiZe to be his partner. ‘During the selection procedures, StreetwiZe was the only one to say: We bring the story of street kids and their street skills. Just connect with our story. That is completely the opposite of a consultant saying: I’ll jump ship and help you. You risk to just keep going on in the same direction.

StreetwiZe developed a programme tailored to our needs. Starting in February 2017 until June 2017, they organised workshops dealing with the four streetskills: positive focus, agility and resilience, proactive creativity and cooperative competition. 280 employees took part in this learning journey. Everyone participated in at least three of the streetskills workshops. Supervisors and managers went the extra mile and participated in a more intensive programme involving street skill workshops and a series of workshops about techniques like pitching and storytelling. Everyone immediately grasped the huge potential streetskills could have in your job”, Ward Dejaegher says. ’This surprised me: people started evaluating their role within the organisation. The way StreetwiZe organises their workshops forces employees to step out of their daily routine.

The image of street kids makes thinking about change something that doesn’t affect them instantly,’ Ward Dejaegher says. ‘The image of street kids makes you look at things from another perspective, outside the context of the organisation. This has a very relaxing and soothing effect. You’re no longer in the same static situation that you probably tried to change many times. By taking the reasoning process outside the organisation, you get rid of intern mechanisms and you can ask yourself the question: What do we need? What can I do myself?’

Of all four streetskills, positive focus is the one that made a lasting impression on Ward Dejaegher. ‘During meetings our people mention positive focus the most. It is also an easy term to remember.’

Innovation lab

‘Learning a streetskill is a first step. Applying it is another. Anyone formulating an idea during the workshops was invited to participate in an innovation lab. In these innovation labs the focus lies on turning the collected ideas into concrete actions together with StreetwiZe coaches’ support. We got around ten very concrete change projects out of these labs. We worked on those projects for six months, from June 2017 until January 2018. All projects were presented to the directors and the colleagues during our agency day in the beginning of this year. Every project group was honoured for their commitment. The accepted projects were put into practice. There were also rejected projects, the directors didn’t think every project viable. But in that case, our people were told the reasons why and they were still honoured for their commitment. One of the groups that saw their project declined just came up with another one that did get accepted. There is also a group of people working on a way to free up time to work on innovation more consistently and to organise the innovation labs again.’

Is there a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’, I ask him. ’Before people were reluctant or rather careful to come forward with an idea. Now you see people visiting their superior and saying: ‘Hey, I just thought about this … how to go about it?’ Ten percent of our people participated in the innovation labs. That’s only ten percent. But if you look at it from an ambassador’s point of view, then it is a lot. Everyone knows now that ideas have a chance to grow. The coming twenty years will bring more changes than the past twenty years did. This campaign succeeded in making it clear to people that they don’t have to endure this change. And it became very clear that we appreciate it a lot if they say: ‘I have a vision, and I’d like to work on it’. There were people that always had a career plan already. But anyone who didn’t have one yet, thought about one during the past year.

Heavily involved

‘They called me in the evening and even during the weekend, to consult and to improve, always with a warm touch and yet very professional. I never experienced this kind of interaction with consultancy or training organisations if you could call StreetwiZe one anyway. They participated actively by thinking along and tailoring the process to the needs of our organisation and always with the results in mind. The StreetwiZe  coaches also participated in our agency day, even if we didn’t expect them to. They wanted to finish the job properly, topping it off with some recommendations. The fact that they send someone to interview us now says a lot.’