De Watergroep is the largest drinking water company in Flanders. More than 1,400 employees collaborate to supply water through a network of over 32,000 km to about 180 municipalities – serving some 3 million customers and hundreds of companies. Along with the sponsorship of three EJWP participants, Ingrid Keupers, Benjamin Hermans, and currently Thibault Moreels, De Watergroep has hosted training weeks and projects as part of partnership activities.
Ms. Louise Vanysacker, Head of Research and Development, shared her insights on what De Watergroep is doing today, her role, and the company’s ongoing cooperation with the European Junior Water Programme.
“I was appointed Head of Research and Development (R&D) at De Watergroep in 2018. The R&D department did not exist before then, so it was nice to start from scratch. There were already existing projects in the R&D field at De Watergroep, but with a smaller budget and fewer activities. Our CEO Hans Goossens decided in 2017 to launch the following departments as part of the innovation board: R&D, Process Improvements, Business Development, and our laboratory.
As De Watergroep distributes drinking water to municipalities, it is nice to have control processes that are not close to the business aspects in order to remain independent in our work. We have our own project managers working on R&D, while our program managers provide a structure and apply for new projects with the right partners. Today our R&D team consists of 12 full-time members and we’re represented in each company project.
My background includes a master’s degree in microbiology and a PhD in BioScience Engineering. I obtained both degrees from the KU Leuven in Belgium. The subject of my PhD was biofilm formation in wastewater treatment systems, which I accomplished in 5 years…with a son at the same time. A post-doc followed in which I worked on different wastewater treatment projects. I had good knowledge of waste water, which now includes drinking water.
De Watergroep is more than a classic drinking water company; we also protect our water sources and provide sewer services. We work with all kinds of organizations also to improve our purification and distribution techniques in order to provide water of outstanding quality. As a public company, it is very important for us that our customers are pleased.
I think we’re quite innovative at De Watergroep, with about 70 R&D projects including satellite earth observation, leak detection, researching the impact of solar panels on water bodies and much more. We also work with social companies in Belgium that help people who lack professional skills to find a job. We hire their employees to perform the more basic tasks when finding leaks. Our water pipe network is about 34,000 km long. You can imagine the difficulty of checking everything when we only have our regular staff at our disposal. Working with social companies for people in need provides employment, and our technicians can perform the more complex duties. We believe it is the role of a public company to do what it can for sustainable projects and its communities.
Challenges – and working with EJWP
Droughts and other climate changes are changing the ways we work with water. The other challenge lies in human capital, and this is why it is important to join programmes like EJWP. There is a shift in the way young professionals and employees in general view their work and satisfaction.
We see the benefits of each employee undergoing additional training. This is one of the reasons why the company joined EJWP. We notice clear changes in how the participants communicate and analyse problems. Every time our employees participate in an EJWP course, we ask for feedback, so we can share their newly obtained knowledge through newsletters and company short seminars. Soft skills are also increasingly important in how they develop and learn in professional environments, for example: how to deal with inter-team working relations. Workshops with EJWP trainer Jennifer Cronick have also helped adjustments in work settings.
The biggest advantage of the EJWP is its European diversity in participants. This means that we can reach the right people through the EJWP network for projects in which we need information on a certain topic and how it is dealt with, viewed, experienced in different European countries. Thanks to this network, we can more easily compare survey results between European countries, providing us with valuable insights. Next, we can make decisions on what’s important for De Watergroep and take action.
So far three employees have participated in EJWP, and there may be a fourth, if all goes as expected. Another unique feature of EJWP is the opportunity to ask the participants to carry out a project. We can send in project questions to the participants for potential solutions. This avoids loss of valuable time and budget which we otherwise would have spent on large consultancy companies. The diversity of the EJWP groups is an enormous strength. For example: a group can consist of an engineer, an accountant, and a hydrologist. People from different disciplines help provide balanced insights in your project.
During our training week in Belgium in September 2022, the EJWP participants visited a brewery and cultural sites. That’s the fun part, and the workshops and masterclasses were important to the development agenda. Lasting relationships are built through activities like these. Ingrid, who was our first EJWP participant, is still in touch with her EJWP network and discusses ideas with them. That’s good for their professional relations, and our companies and communities also benefit from this network and the combined knowledge.
Collaboration is key, whether it’s company-to-company interaction or people from different parts of the company. Our problems are too complex to be tackled alone. By stimulating open communication and sharing your knowledge as a company, you also receive knowledge. It is a win-win situation. Through working on innovative projects with universities and other companies, we can help each other by tackling challenges together such as developing and implementing new software for algorithms to discover leaks, and then bringing it to market. We’re stronger together!”