Born in The Netherlands, in Utrecht (my much beloved hometown) in 1956 as the youngest of five children in a middle-class family of Protestant persuasion. As a child, I was fascinated by the differences among plants and animals. I enjoyed tinkering and experimenting. In 1973 I began studying biology, first at the University of Utrecht, and later at the University of Leiden. Bachelor’s in ecology and Master’s in ecology, environmental science, and teaching qualification. Developed an eye for detail, as studying biology is one great exercise in observation.
Graduated in 1980 and then dedicated myself to administering learning processes and developing curricula in various educational institutions (taught biology in LBO (Dutch lower vocational school) and MAVO (Dutch lower general secondary school)). Over time, learned a great deal about dealing with people and careful organisation and direction of lessons. Between 1985 and 1988, became the proud mother of three children.
I actually wanted to be a researcher. But in 1980, the environment was not in vogue and almost no one would pay you to do ecological research. What captivated me the most at the school where I taught was the atmosphere of fellowship. Practical people, with a passion for their work. In 1981, I also held a temporary six-month position as a scientific researcher at Staatsbosbeheer (Dutch Forestry Commission). As a field biologist, wading with boots through the mud along the streams of South Limburg Province, to study the impact of fertilization (yes, even back then) on species of rare riverbank vegetation higher up on the slopes.
After ten years of education, I was beginning to get a feel for teaching, but I wanted more. In 1990, became a consultant at DvL, a regional firm of consulting engineers. Consulting municipal authorities on environmental matters, such as granting of permits and law enforcement. After that, consultant at world’s largest inspection firm, SGS. From 1995 to 2002 at VB/ Deloitte & Touche. Started off as environmental expert and via environmental and quality management auditor developed into organisational consultant for processes.
Projects which I helped start as an organisational consultant were enacted at governmental environment ministries. Introduction of quality management, research into the development and maintenance of environmental legislation. At that time, also conducted research into practical experiences of SMEs with environmental laws.
This resulted in the first major rift in my scientific approach and attitude. Although I did already have some doubts (how often were hypotheses adjusted post hoc in order to make them fit observations?). How does it end up that the elegantly devised, solidly constructed rules or management systems often work so poorly in practice? This prompted my decision, after requesting the brochure three years in a row, to begin the Masters program in Change Management at Sioo.
In late November of 2002 I took the plunge: I quit my job to be my own boss. Since January of 2003, I have been working as a self-employed consultant under the moniker Van der Zouwen Organisatieadvies. Along with five change management specialists, colleagues from the program, started a joint venture: the Changeprofessionals. I assist organisations and networks of professionals in change processes, to optimise use of available capacities. I do this in the role of consultant, facilitator, coach, trainer, or researcher. Common goals are: create new connections by bringing together people and ideas, use participatory change methodologies and promote familiarity with these methods. The latter is achieved via practical training such as Large Scale Intervention facilitator training, workshops and conferences, and creation of informative websites and other publications. See also www.learninghistories.net and www.largescaleinterventions.com
I see it as a challenge to find balance between my immediate family, work, relatives, friends, and hobbies. The experiences that Charles Handy describes in his book “The elephant and the flea” resonate with me. I enjoy being that self-willed, creative freelancer, who strives to develop things that make a difference: writing, contributing something, helping to develop capacities, creating something new by bringing different disciplines together (such as ecology, didactics, systems thinking, and learning processes in organisations).
In January of 2008, I became affiliated with Tilburg University as an external PhD student of Professor Dr. Jac Geurts. My doctoral research is concerned with the question “When and how are Large Scale Interventions effective for organisational change? When is it worth the effort?”. The research focuses on sustainable change, which I see as the development of communicative self-steering, development of change capacities. In March 2011 I graduated as PhD on the thesis “Building an evidence based guide to Large Scale Interventions. Towards sustainable change with the whole system
Walking on the two legs of scientific knowledge and practical experience is increasingly becoming “my thing. On August 1, 2014, I became a professor in Sustainable Working & Organizing at Avans University of Applied Sciences. Initiating and conducting practice-oriented research, together with a research group, were my main tasks. A nice new challenge, for three days a week. On July 1, 2022, I bid farewell with a workshop Monkey Cages with cocreation and together with my knowledge circle members wrote 10 articles in a volume ‘Apenkooien met cocreatie’ of the same name. In it, we share insights and examples on cocreation from eight years of lectureship.
In October 2018, my book ‘Doing Action Research. A roadmap for students and professionals’ was published and the second edition in April 2022. More and more, I am combining new knowledge from in-depth research with actions for sustainable development. In recent years, my role in this has increasingly shifted to that of trainer, supervisor or coach for others engaged in cocreation. Transferring knowledge and experience, and especially practical methods, in books and articles is becoming more important. I hope to continue doing that into old age. A lifetime of learning and never retiring. In February 2023 my book ‘Co-creation in work meetings. Making the invisible visible’ was born. Now only in Dutch, but I am working on an English version. To be continued ….