An excellent research worksite requires attentive work with people

12. Feb. 2018

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The article was published on website in Czech version. 

At the Institutional Management in Science conference, Marijke Lein, the HR director at the Vlamish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB), spoke about her experience with human resources management at a research worksite, possibilities of transfer of some best practices from business and about immense patience that has brought success. The conference was held at CEITEC Masaryk University in Brno at the beginning of February and focused on HR policy in the field of R&D and on research quality evaluation in the Czech Republic.

There are 5 universities from the Flemish part of Belgium united at the VIB (Universiteit Ghent, Universiteit Antwerpen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Universiteit Hasselt and KU Leuven). It consists of 8 research centres which together include 75 research groups and it serves 10 research infrastructures. More than 1500 employees of 66 nations are employed there, with Italians and Chinese representing the largest group of international staff.

The VIB receives 29 percent of its budget from the Flemish government (approx. EUR 37 million per year). Another quarter of the budget comes from international grants and from cooperation with the application sphere and one quarter is represented by contributions from partner universities. The rest consists of resources from individual grants.

At the VIB, human resources development policy in its present form has been created for more than 20 years. Two decades ago, the institution faced problems known to many universities. The doctoral studies, in average, lasted more than 7 years and PhD graduates remained in their positions for more than 10 years without any further career advancement. The worksite was little international and mobility of the Belgian researchers was limited which resulted in a high degree of “inbreeding”. The only possible way of career development was the academic career.

Nowadays, the VIB is in a very different situation although, according to Marijke, the process was not easy. Initial changes in the strategic management of the institution and the new concept of work with employees have been influenced primarily by the New Public Management – i.e. implementation of some best practices from private sector to public sector. This includes for example professionalization of supporting processes, emphasis on efficiency, purchase of external services (outsourcing) etc.

Main changes at the VIB

Overall, the management staff has been rejuvenated – nowadays 4 out of 8 directors are younger than 45 years. The evaluation of activity of research groups and research workers has undergone a dramatic change. Gradually, it has been shifted from quantitative to qualitative indicators. The evaluation process at the VIB has almost ceased to consider absolute figures – number of publications, number of PhD theses or, for example, number of resources obtained from cooperation with the application sphere. They use exclusively peer review which focuses on qualitative evaluation. The key questions are: what is our contribution to science, how is our activity socially relevant, what is its practical impact or in other words – how would our field look like without our activity and how did we contribute to it.

In the VIB management, the work with employees plays an important role. From the original narrow focus of HR department its aim has significantly widened. Apart from payroll agenda (salaries, agreements, insurance etc.) for more than 700 permanent employees, it also consists of preparation and implementation of seminars and trainings for all institute employees (almost 1,600 people), recruitment of new workers, development plans, mediation of communication among all member universities worksites and the VIB management, all agenda related to international workers including assistance with their integration in the local environment, development of HR policy in accordance with the VIB strategic development plan (including the award of HRS44) and last, but not least, social and legal issues.

Continuous education and security guarantee

After generally dismissive attitude typical for the period of twenty years ago, nowadays coaching and leadership form an integral part of HR policy at the institute. The programs are designed for senior and PhD graduates. A great emphasis is put on feedback which takes place at least once a year. Group discussions take place and are appreciated by the participants – they learn a lot of important information about their research group, satisfaction of their co-workers and last, but not least, about themselves. Career counselling and the so called career day are also effective. Former graduates who work at different places outside the VIB also attend these events.

The written agreement (so called principal investigator charter) between the institution and a researcher is also an inspirational tool. On approximately three pages it describes what the VIB offers to the researcher (funding for 5 years, budget etc.) and what it expects from the researcher (fulfilment of his role etc.) including the method of evaluation.

One of the results for above changes is the fact that nowadays the PhD studies take approximately 4 years with a maximum of one year more. Also, the VIB is an award-winning research worksite with a high proportion of international staff. Furthermore, the number of students at member universities and the number of PhD students have increased, as well as the amount of financial resources in the budgets.

Changes must be implemented gradually

Marijke Lein obviously points out some pitfalls faced by the VIB during the implementation of the new management approach. She personally experienced that coming up with procedures which work in private companies and attempting to implement them overnight is simply impossible. When she enthusiastically came up with her ideas, the scientists had to moderate her. It was very frustrating, but it has paid off to be patient and to explain and try things repeatedly. One failure simply means nothing.

Marijke also advises not to introduce more changes at once. At the same time, it is necessary to emphasize and very thoroughly explain the added value of changes and measures for the organization as a whole, for research groups and above all, each individual employee. It is necessary that the plans and changes are realistic and long-term. On the other hand, it cannot take too much time for people to follow them or distract them from their own work.

Professional support team

From her own experience, Marijke recommends the research organization’s support team to be on highly professional level – whether it be human resources development, information and communication technologies, projects administration, logistics, finance, technologies or technologic transfer. The main task is to relieve scientists from as many unscientific activities as possible. The support team must be aware that its role is to serve the research workers. Those who do not share this attitude must leave. On the other hand, this does not mean that scientists should treat the support staff in a belittling way. Both groups need each other, complement each other and need to work professionally.

When reflecting her experience in the scientific environment, Marijke suggests a general increase of institutional funding share at the expense of targeted funding share. Nowadays she sees too much time spent on writing project proposals that have less than ten percent chance for success. This results in people having less time for critical thinking, creative work, innovations and tuition as well.

Quality is more important than quantity

As an essential aspect for management and operation of a research organization, Marijke recommends transition from quantitative evaluation (number of publications, number of PhD students, volume of cooperation with practice field etc.) to qualitative evaluation by peer-review, where such evaluation should be very thorough but not too frequent.

Furthermore, she recommends better allocation of work among research workers and project managers as well as junior and senior scientists. According to her experience, having less PhD students and more PhD graduates has proven effective. She also mentions the role of international scientific councils. The experience of their members should be used by the organization rather for recommendations and reflection of strategic management than, for instance, for conducting assessment.

Author: Vědavý (AV)

Marijke Lein has nearly thirty years of professional experience with human resources development in various organizations and she has spent the last 22 years working for a research organization. She graduated from KU Leuven where she specialised at industrial and organizational psychology. Straight away after her studies, she spent 8 years abroad as a trainer and a manager at communication courses for the HR department in the company SHELL Petroleum. Afterwards, she worked in Belgium as an HR consultant and manager in a manufacturing and distribution company. In 1995, she joined the VIB with a task to build an HR department which would take care of all aspects of human resources development in the institute in close cooperation with its partner universities.