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Innovation Management in Social Enterprises – The Case of Caritas Vienna

Dr. Florian Pomper and Thomas Funke

Caritas Vienna: The Initial Situation

Caritas Vienna is one of the largest providers of social services in Austria. It provides social services in various areas like homelessness, long-term unemployment, work and housing for people with disabilities, care for dependent persons and the terminally ill and others more.  In total 4,500 full-time employees and around 2,000 volunteers work for Caritas Vienna.

As an organisation with a long-standing history, Caritas Vienna has been initiating and successfully implementing many innovative projects in the past. However, concerning the innovation process itself, we did not specifically occupy ourselves with strategic questions such as:

  • How are ideas generated, selected and developed in our organisation?
  • How can employees on all levels actively engage in the idea generation and project development?
  • How can we include experiences and knowledge from outside the organisation in the whole innovation process?
  • How can we learn from others so that we don’t have to always reinvent the wheel?

That is why 5 years ago we decided to deal with these questions at management level. We defined “increase in innovation power” as strategic goal of our organisation.

Three Obstacles

At that time, an initial analysis of the situation revealed three particular obstacles which hindered innovation. What we didn't know by then, but found out during the following years: those obstacles can be found within many comparable organisations within the social domain.

Following the typical path of the innovation process (“idea generation” -  “idea selection” - “idea/project development”) the three obstacles are:

  1. Innovation happens rather by chance: Ideas come and go with employees at all levels. However, they are not followed up systematically. Some are carried onwards, most of them, however, get lost in different levels of hierarchy. Additionally, the selection of ideas happens quite randomly, depending on whatever level of hierarchy the idea comes from. The consequence: Many good ideas get lost and not always the best ideas are selected.
  2. Mindset and Culture: It is not clear, whose responsibility innovation is. There is no shared understanding that all employees at any level can and should take part in the innovation process. In the case of any doubt, the responsibility for innovation is delegated upwardly. The result is that the majority of employees consider innovation as not too important. 

    Besides this, ideas - and project development are carried out for a particular target group, rather than together with the target group:  When developing a new service the needs of the target group are considered only by experts. The target groups and the end-users are only rarely involved in idea generation and development.

  3. Too little room for creative thinking and project development: The overall budget-pressure leads to more and more efficient structures and procedures at all levels. As a consequence, employee and manager can barely cope with their own daily work. This leaves hardly any time for creative thinking, or research, or for further development of ideas.

First Steps Taken

As a result of this analysis an innovation department was created in Caritas Vienna which was given primarily three tasks:

  • Project development
  • Innovations scout
  • Implementing of innovation friendly structures within the whole organization

Project development: The innovation department serves as an project development unit for the whole organisation. It brings in external know-how and experiences and works on ideas in greater depth. As a result, it comes up with concrete concepts for innovative solutions. We research international Best Practices, which deal with similar questions, learn from them and adapt these models to our own particular situation. Although this process binds personnel resources, it avoids having to reinvent the wheel and leads to substantially better solutions by learning from others. In addition it reduces the workload of employees in the operative units.

Innovation Scout: The innovation department also acts as an „innovation scout”. It researches new exciting approaches in the social area and brings these into the organisation as specific impetus. This happens without any specific background question or topic that could restrict this research. In fact quite the opposite is true. Especially innovative approaches from areas are of interest, in which Caritas Vienna has up until now not been involved in order to stay open also for more radical new ideas and services.

Both project development and innovation scout have already been successfully established in Caritas Vienna.  Both are perceived within the organisation as very helpful and have lead to a wider-scope of further developments and improvements.

By implementing these two methods we were also able to raise further awareness for the topic of innovation management within the organisation. Motivated by these first success stories we decided to take the next steps and to start to work on the structures, procedures and the culture of the entire organisation in order to make it open for innovation. 

Where We Want To Be

In the long run, we want all 4.500 employees to be empowered and intrinsically motivated to become and stay innovative: Innovation needs to be neither top-down nor bottom-up. It needs to be democratized. Project Development is supposed to take place as a Co-Creation of many. Services have to be developed with and not just for clients. Users and clients have to take part in the innovation process and have to be actively integrated.

How We Plan To Get There

At a first sight, this might sound odd and even harder to realize. How do you integrate Caritas clients into the innovation process? Hard to imagine, but we were positive about that challenge and started the first pilot processes in 2011.

What were the results? On a meta level: Even though many participants were highly sceptical at the very beginning of the project, almost all were satisfied and felt the positive energy coming along with it. On a content level: Almost all workshops showed compelling results.

Currently we are designing ways to implement our innovation structures and processes on a sustainable and long term basis within the whole organisation. We are aware of the fact that this task might take us the next years as it affects entire structures and touches long lasting organizational cultures. But having the full support of the top management and having in mind the good experiences with innovation management so far, we are optimistic to bring it to successfully implement our processes at Caritas Vienna. 

Dr. Florian Pomper is Head of Innovation at Caritas Vienna and Thomas Funke is the Head of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and InnovationVienna University of Economics and Business

To learn more about the work of Caritas Vienna, please visit their website