Interview with Wolfgang Michalek, ZSI

30. Jul. 2013

Editorial: viability based on cultural diversity & mulitdisciplinarity & methodical precision


"The financial and economic crisis makes creativity and innovation in general and social innovation in particular even more important to foster sustainable growth, secure jobs and boost competitiveness."

José Manuel Durão Barroso, President of the European Commission (20.01.2009, press release)

“We need to think and act differently to combat unemployment– the biggest societal challenge of today. I wish that these types of innovative ideas could be expanded and replicated to have large-scale impact. This is a source of growth and jobs. We need to tap into.”

Antonio Tajani, Vize President of the European Commission, responsible for industry and entrepreneurship (29.05.2013, press release)

Welcome at the the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna: What can be expected by new employees?
Our work is based on our cultural diversity: The ZSI gives home to over 50 employees with different geographical and multidisciplinary background. For example, we speak more than 10 languages and develop projects in the Waldviertel region in Austria, as well as in more far away Southeast Asia, although our focus is the European Area. This variety, linked to methodical precision and extensive knowledge in project management, is an essential factor of our success.
However our open approach to innovation, doesn’t mean to exclude proven methods: Our corporate culture differs only selectively from similar successful institutions. We succeed in balancing bottom-up and top-down processes. Another important aspect at the ZSI is the topic of professional training of employees, to whom we offer customized formats of knowhow transfer. We gained very positive experiences with a tandem format for new employees, which facilitates their professional entry phase and helps to become fit for the business of projects.

Are there specifics in the context of an exclusively project-driven organisation?
A specific aspect is the financing of ZSI, which is based exclusively on projects. In other words, our turnover is generated 100 percent by projects, also in former years the so so called  ‘Basisförderung’, a basic funding for research by the state, only contributed marginally to our turnover anyhow. The ZSI currently works in nearly 70 projects with over 40 clients. From this perspective it becomes more obivious that there are different programmes and policies, which require a high degree of flexibility and administrative  skills and knowledge regarding the implementation of projects. At the same time, this constellation results in a large variety of topics: We have some main foci such as the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation of the European Commission (FP7) , but we aren’t absorbed by monoculture. In sum the ZSI cares for nearly a dozen different types of projects, based on inter- and transdisciplinarity and  -- in this context –  also takes over different project roles. This mix is a major challenge, we meet year by year.

Who are the key partners of ZSI?
Overall I like to mention the European Union,  on a national level ministries such as the BMASK (Austrian Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection), BMUKK (Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture) or the BMWF (Austrian Federal Ministry of Research and Science) are very important clients. With view on our private clients and partners there is an almost non-transparent diversity: the number may include up to 30 project partners for one project and include research institutes, stakeholders at the political level or at the European and regional level, as well as NGOs. This diversity of partners comes with a variety of approaches and perspectives and offers – from my point of view –  sustainable input to the permanent emergence and development of social innovations.

How do you define success at ZSI?
For us success includes multiple dimensions: first and foremost we create knowledge for our clients and implement processes, which help them to suceed with problems. The second dimension refers to internal aspects like our internal employee culture. In my experience it only becomes possible to implement challenging projects with a high level of quality with motivated employees. At ZSI success also means the continous and professional development of our employees, which are supported by a number of innovative measures and offers of training. Last but not least, the ZSI is a social profit company and it is important to have an economically stable foundation. Within this triangle of success we progress since the Centre for Social Innovation was founded more than 20 years ago.

All innovations are socially relevant…
In accordance with this claim of ZSI I like to comment from the point of view of my personal background: everything, which reduces the gap between poverty and wealth, is socially relevant and socially innovative solutions are needed.

Wolfgang Michalek took over the agenda of the managing director of ZSI in 2012. His law study was followed by a career as a project manager in the context of labour market (policies) –  more recently as the head of ZSI’s unit Work & Equal Opportunities (A&C).

Tags: labour market, social innovation