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"The administration shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the departments”

We have a duty to use our expertise in the administration and bring ourselves into play, says Nikolaj Harbjerg. On 1 April, he will begin work as administrative centre manager at Health following six years in a corresponding position at Aarhus BSS.

2018.03.08 | Ulla Krag Jespersen

On 1 April, Nikolaj Harbjerg will begin work as administrative centre manager at Health. Photo: AU Photo.

  • How would you describe yourself in three words?

I’m very dialogue-oriented. I’m also result-orientated; I really want to deliver what we’re expected to deliver. And I also like it when there’s progress and development. 

  • What’s your first task going to be?

Firstly, I need to get a sense of the place. Get to understand what kind of place Health is. What kind of a culture is there here? What kind of people? What’s important for the departments? I want to visit all the departments and all the administrative units and get to know the employees. Afterwards I’m going to make use of what I’ve learned, of course. I'd like to challenge some things, but I will do it with respect for what works well.

  • Why move to the same position – just at another faculty?

Health really has a lot of contacts outside the university – to the healthcare sector, to the region, municipalities and hospitals. There is a different kind of expertise. It’s also a place where the administration is involved in strategic questions at the highest decision-making level and where the administration is seen as an equal partner at the faculty. I think that’s positive. I’ve spent more than nine years at Aarhus BSS; now I had the chance to try something new.

  • What will you take with you from BSS and use at HE?

First and foremost, I won’t assume that what I know from Aarhus BSS will necessarily work at Health. I'll start by getting a sense of the place. But having said that, I can see from Health's strategy that they want to be more internationally oriented, and more open towards business and industry, which are areas I have experience with from Aarhus BSS.

  • What would you describe as your biggest success at BSS?

I'm very pleased that we’ve established a more equal collaboration with the departments. When I arrived, the relationship between the administration and the departments was characterised by a bit of a 'us and them' attitude. I’ve been preoccupied with moving away from a simple customer-supplier relationship and creating a more genuine collaborative relationship. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no doubt that the solutions that work best are those where we haven’t simply sat in an administrative vacuum, or for that matter, one’s that have been invented at a department independently of any knowledge of the administration. The best solutions are the ones we create together.

  • What will be your biggest challenge as new administration centre manager at HE?

My biggest challenge will probably be understanding the complexity implicit in being almost two organisations at once – the university and the region. At Health, the research agenda has high priority, while I have most in-depth experience of the educational side, so it will also be a new experience fro me to clearly focus on what we can do administratively to support the research area.

  • What will you specifically do to support and expand the relationship between the administration and the departments?

More specifically, I’ll begin by finding out where we are now. How does this cooperation work as it is now? What do the departments think, what does the administration think? Are there some areas that obviously need to be looked at more than others? Because, of course, it’s always a case of ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’. We won’t improve by functioning in an unthinking customer-supplier relationship; we must focus on cooperating on the common core task. We have a common target to aim for.

  • At Aarhus BSS you’ve worked with KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) in some places in the administration. Is that something you want to introduce here?

I don’t know whether it will actually be KPIs, but you must have some strategic priorities for want you want to achieve. Whether you call it action plans broken down into goals, sub-goals and results, or whether you create KPIs, is not crucial for me. What’s important is that we know why we’re here, what we need to do, and whether we are successful in what we do. But we need something to benchmark our results against. And it’s important not to sit down and formulate goals and initiatives on your own. That’s something you need to have a dialogue with the users about. It’s also a question of culture. Are we open-minded when we talk to the departments? Are we are listening to what they need? Do we have the competences and the courage to challenge them when we hear something that puzzles us? For me, it's very much about the approach we have to the task. That can be difficult to put into a KPI.

  • Does this mean you’d be happy to see your division managers challenge the departments?

Definitely. Of course, it must be done properly and respectfully, but we have expertise and competences in the administration that mean we must also bring ourselves into play. And it’s not only division managers. It could also be project finance administrators, HR employees, communication officers and everybody else who has expertise to offer. Having said that, I think it’s just as important for the departments to challenge the administration.

  • With you as administrative centre manager, is Health going to get a strategy for what services the administration needs to provide? 

I think it's quite dangerous to draw-up an isolated administrative strategy. The strategy for the administration has, of course, to fit in with the strategy for the entire faculty, and the optimal is for it to be an integrated part of the faculty's strategy. That’s because the administrative functions are an inextricable part of our core products. So, I would really prefer to talk about how we need to have some action plans, goals and success criteria for how we succeed in supporting the strategy that we are a natural part of.

  • Do you already have any visions that involve changes to the administrative area?

Before things get that far, I’m initially interested in getting to know the HE administrative centre and the surrounding faculty. I’m not going to just assume that what worked well at Aarhus BSS can simply be copied at Health. I’ll give you an example: At Aarhus BSS, we have merged the PhD and HR administration, which has been very successful. We provide a better service and do so with fewer resources. So that sounds like something that should immediately be done everywhere else! However, I'm fully aware that the PhD area at Health is fundamentally different from that at Aarhus BSS. It would be an own goal of dimensions for me to simply say: ‘It worked well where I came from and now we're doing to do the same thing here’. That doesn’t mean that I won’t look at whether the organisational structures we have are the right ones. You have to do that continuously.

  • What do you think about reporting to both the dean and the university director?

It can be a risky organisational structure because for it to work, it must be based on goodwill and collaborative skills throughout the entire system. If the joint university and faculty levels do not agree on the basic priorities, then it will not work. My experience is that it works very well. So you can reap the benefits, which are being able to deal with faculty-specific needs while we are, at the same time, one university. A university where there is still a need for more joint administrative solutions, common digital infrastructure and for us to learn from each other. So there’s a lot of benefit in this kind of double reporting set-up.

  • How will you balance cost reduction requirements against demands for improved service from the administration?

Those are our framework conditions. And the crossfield we find ourselves in. It may seem like a paradoxical requirement; we must deliver better service while having to so with fewer resources. On the other hand, we’re an administration that is becoming better and better at streamlining our processes, among other things because we get better digital tools. When I look into the future, I see an administration that is smaller, but more digital with fewer manual tasks, and which perhaps has more of an advisory and strategic character.

  • What functions will no longer be here in five years? Can you give an example?

It’s difficult to be specific, but we know it’s possible to support more basic workflows. It could be in places where there are standard enquiries. If, for example, you receive a lot of identical enquiries, you can automate the way you answer.

  • Who is Nikolaj privately?

I’m a proper ‘Aarhusianer’. Born and bred in Aarhus. Apart from a few years in Copenhagen at the Ministry of Finance and a few in Silkeborg working for the municipality, I’ve lived in Aarhus most of my life. I live in Risskov together with my wife and our three joint-custody children – three girls aged eleven. Two of them are twins. When I'm not working, I like to run, I play a little tennis and try to find the time to read books. I read a mix of entertaining books and books that stimulate me a little more. I've just read Halvbroderen by Lars Saaby Christensen, it's a great book. I’ve got most of Murakami’s books and I’m planning to work my way through them. I’m also really interested in music. I've just been to a Morrissey concert in Dublin. I listen to Nick Cave, The National and I’m looking forward to going to the Northside Festival this summer.

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