Updated: Oct 24, 2018
Interview: Harm Jan Bouwknegt - Managing Director
On January 1st, 2017, the Regina Cœli language institute in Vught, in southern Netherlands, started an innovation journey. And that was noteworthy, because they had not ever done that before.
For the Dutch, Regina Cœli is an institution. When asked where one can learn languages, any Dutch person has a reflex response: “At the Nuns in Vught” [i]. Renown Dutch film maker Paul Verhoeven famously came to Vught to prepare himself before the shooting of “Elle” a movie in French starring Isabelle Huppert [ii].
I have been there to learn Dutch. Twice. It is not as good as they say. It is better.
I went there for my first cursus in the summer of 2016 with just a couple of Dutch words in my bag and completed the second in September 2017 at near professional proficiency. The accommodation, food, service, atmosphere, design, gardens, everything contributes to an inspiring guest and learning experience. It is just as well, because learning a new language from scratch is no picnic…
Classroom side, Regina Cœli has a unique way of supporting language adoption efforts, of making them come to fruition. Tried and adopted by generations of travellers, missionaries, politicians and diplomats, business and academic professionals, their learning recipe attracts people from all over the world [iii]. In short, it mixes three ingredients: learning intensively, learning in an inspiring location and learning with native speakers [iv]. And it works wonders.
So, when I heard early in 2017 that they were shaking things up, I sat nervously on the edge of my seat: I did not doubt that they would improve as a result, but would they still be themselves?
The language training sector has not been spared by the digital revolution [v]. Like the rest, it has gone digital [vi]. For Regina Cœli, going back to the drawing board was not a hard sell, but when your organisation is the modern-day descendant of a religious order created 400 years ago, innovation does not come naturally [vii]. The main challenge the institute wanted to tackle was the possibility to tailor the course format to each student, without entirely disrupting the existing fine-tuned, award winning mechanic. As Harm-Jan puts it:
“The difficulty is to be customer intimate while having an excellent operation”.
I really like the expression.
“Having such a rich heritage creates a strong connexion between the employees” He pursues. “But it also comes with not being used to seeking and implementing change”. The institute has worked since its inception on the basis of a 5 days cursus alternating instructor-led classes and study time, always on the same rhythm (the famous week-in-Vught). Over 55 years of existence the formula was patiently brought to a perfect execution. But already for a few years, clients have challenged both the length and the sequencing of their learning experience. Harm Jan recalls:
“Being pushed by our clients and the market to work in different ways told us we had to make a move, the question was: In which direction?”
Harm Jan Bouwknegt is the Managing Director at Regina Cœli. The man strikes with an elegant balance of collectedness and warmth. Management at Regina Cœli conducts yearly strategy reviews, but 2017 was different. The whole staff was consulted as were its clients and partners, and the thinking was challenged in all the possible ways. Following a structured approach, the team collected more than 8,000 ideas. After many rounds of selection these trickled down to 4 innovation projects, which the institute now actively pursues: An after-course service, virtual reality supported courses adjusted to specific learning goals [viii], summer camps for younger people, and the opening of week-end courses. “Choosing was not hard because we followed a structured criteria-based process to arrive there. Having made the choice, living with the consequence is where the challenge started”. Comments Harm Jan.
“When our process went from thinking to doing, we realised then that we had a lot to learn”.
Remarkably, the process was not actually driven by management. Teams made of employees rose to the challenge and seized the opportunity to innovate. For example, project communication, critical for addressing misunderstandings and overcome resistances, was driven by the employees themselves in a set of lunchtime roundtables, as were all the client and partner meetings.
“Acting on a project basis did not come naturally to us, so the management team spent a lot of time supporting those who courageously stepped up to drive the transformation. We did not make the decisions, we enabled and validated them”.
As employees stepped up to conduct projects, an even more profound culture change was put in motion: individual development. Up until this point, a strictly collective culture of excellence had prevailed, and the shift towards individualised development is work in progress. As it did with innovation, instead of pushing its employees through a mandated yearly review cycle, the institute endeavours to stimulate their appetite for personal opportunities to develop, and to respond to these as they arise.
Mid 2018 the results are showing. 25% of students now enjoy a partly or completely tailormade formula, compared with just 4% four years ago. Regina Cœli is present outside of Vught, on the High-Tech campus in Eindhoven, and 10 weekend short courses are offered, staffed by language trainers who volunteer for it.
Having kept in touch with one of my trainers after my first course, I was a close witness of this process. I attended one of their customer round tables early 2017, at a stage where the process had filtered down to around 15 ideas. In the summer 2017, I followed a completely tailored cursus, with only 2 trainers instead of 4. I received a number of unusual language assignments, like for example to go and have a chat with members of the management team. By the end of the week I was able to articulate the North90 vision in Dutch, and presented it to a live audience. It was just amazing!
And that’s what I like most about this team and this story. In that transformation process, nothing was lost of what made my experience so exceptional.
Lots of things have changed, but it’s still The Nuns in Vught.
About Harm Jan Bouwknegt
Harm Jan Bouwknegt (@hjbouwknegt) has an extensive experience in the training and human resources sector. After heading the HR department of a hospital, he most notably became CEO of Vergouwen Overduin for 14 years, and finally took the Managing Director at Regina Cœli language institute in 2013, where he has stayed since.
Harm Jan is also a marathon runner, and serves on the board of Tinqwise, a Dutch digital learning company.
[i] The reputation of the institute is so strong and so ingrained that the name “The Nuns in Vught” was even trademarked.
[ii] The staff at Regina Cœli put together a programme allowing Paul Verhoeven to rehearse the scenario and direct in French. https://www.nu.nl/film/4263275/paul-verhoeven-had-half-jaar-hoofdpijn-voorafgaand-filmopnames-.html
[iii] Each year the institute is open for 48 weeks and welcomes around than 4,300 students, generating revenues exceeding € 15m. The languages that can be learned are: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. The students comme from all over the world.
[iv] Those of you who have read or listened to my prose about the North90 training methodology will recognize some influence there: learning at Regina Cœli is challenging, practical and yes, it is unforgettable.
[v] One of the most researched and invested technology sectors of our era is natural language processing. Giving computers the ability to decipher natural language (That is to understand language as we write it or speak it naturally) is an endeavour that has mobilised enormous academic, financial and business resources ever since computers were invented. Computers can now read or listen, and they can translate. How long before they can teach languages?
[vi] How we learn a new language is an active research subject. But we already know that in more profound ways than with other learning experiences, humans exercise their brain plasticity when doing it. It requires creating new pathways, literally rewiring some areas of the brain quite deeply. Exercising these pathways, no matter how assisted by technology, will remain hard going. Technologies can help humans when learning, and in some measure make the exercise faster, but will not make it less effortful. https://brainconnection.brainhq.com/2001/01/27/how-the-brain-learns-a-second-language/
[vii] The monastery of Vught was founded in 1903 by sisters of the Canonesses of Saint Augustin, relocated from the French city of Lunéville. This Catholic order born in the 17th century, had made teaching one of the cornerstones of its apostolate. The monastery started as a girls’ boarding school, and in 1963 the language institute was added. Some of the sisters of the congregations are still alive, but none are active teachers anymore. The institute has since morphed into a business owned by the Pierre Fourier - Alix le Clerc foundation, and the rich soul of its founders is still alive. Regina Cœli continues to bridge people and cultures with the same methodology. Besides Languages courses for individuals, Regina Cœli also offers in-company courses and consulting services, for example in intercultural communication.
[viii] The VR initiative supports the creation of durable memories by stimulating students in multiple ways, cognitively of course, but also physically and emotionally, by making them work in realistic scenarios. Whilst being the most cutting edge, and a sign of strong technology adoption, it is not a game changer, and is not foreseen to bring enormous additional income.