Professor Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl is head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI. As well as directing the Fraunhofer ISI, she also holds the Chair Innovation and Technology Management at the Institute for Entrepreneurship, Technology Management and Innovation (ENTECHNON) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).
She works on the conditions conducive to innovations and their impacts. Her main research focuses are the management of innovations and technology, roadmapping, strategic technology foresight and planning, enterprise networks and knowledge management.
Professor Weissenberger-Eibl, who was recently named as one of the “most influential women engineers in Germany”, studied clothing technology and business administration. She obtained her doctorate and wrote her habilitation thesis at the Technische Universität München.
Professor Weissenberger-Eibl was also a member of the group of experts in the Chancellor’s Dialogue on Germany’s Future where she led the working group Innovation Culture as one of the experts and advised the Chancellor on the future design of society and the economy in Germany. The idea for the International German Forum (IGF) came from the Federal Chancellor’s Dialogue on Germany’s Future. The IGF is a format for the interdisciplinary exchange of views on globally relevant issues of the future. At the IGF, Professor Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl moderated the discussion of the topic “The future needs holistic solutions”.*
Ruth Spiller: Why do you do what you are doing and how did that come about?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: As the director of the Fraunhofer ISI and as Chair of the Department of Innovation and Technology Management iTM at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT) I deal with how innovations emerge and what the framework conditions are which favour their emergence. I was already interested in the topic of innovation when I was a senior manager in a commercial enterprise. However, at the same time it is an area that has always excited me and has constantly accompanied me, during my studies, doctorate and habilitation. This is why my profession as an innovation researcher gives me a lot of pleasure.
What is your inspiration?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: My inspiration is to get to the bottom of things, critically scrutinise them and draw the right conclusions. The topic innovation will always be crucial for companies therefore I want to also address this topic intensively in the future. My experience is that decision makers from all segments of society, but particularly from politics, industry and science, are interested in picking up impulses from applied innovation research in order to take Germany forward on all levels.
If you could ask yourself a question in 20 years‘ time, what would it be?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: I would perhaps ask myself what, in hindsight, was the biggest and most groundbreaking innovation which influenced Germany and myself most. The next few years will certainly present exciting developments.
What kinds of routines do you have in daily life?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: An important routine is certainly to organize my working day and the time available to me as efficiently as possible in order to reconcile my different responsibilities as director of the institute, department chair and member of different supervisory boards and committees. The different working perspectives, i.e. the perspective of an innovation researcher and consultant help me to quickly familiarize myself with different areas of work. The contact with my students and doctoral students involves exciting insights and new ways of looking at things which I definitely would not like to miss.
What was the biggest challenge at the beginning of your career? How did you deal with it?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: At the beginning of my career it was important for me to gain professional experience Within in a commercial enterprise and complete engineering and commercial academic training. I dealt with it by motivating exciting course and work contents, stamina but also by being curious and pursuing another new goal when I came to the end of the road.
Do you have role models?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: I did have role models and motivators. Margaretha and Wolfgang Ley, founders of the fashion company Escada, who left a lasting impression by being so passionate about their profession and their entrepreneurial spirit. In the course of my participation in the German Chancellor’s Dialogue on Germany’s future and the resulting International Germany Forum I also met many scientists from different countries and cultures whose view of innovation was very exciting and enriching. One can certainly always learn from fascinating and exciting personalities.
Did you have a mentor?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The professor I had at university, Professor Horst Wildemann, was an important mentor for me who gave me advice and supported me at the beginning of my academic career and who really appreciated the practical experience I had previously gained in industry; and I am really grateful for this. For an innovation location such as Germany mentors are immensely important. They offer the possibility to answer questions that cannot be asked in the daily work situation. Mentors for me are people one can trust and who offer the opportunity to reflect upon one’s own professional performance and to ask for advice and support. That is why companies but also universities and research institutions have mentoring programs which support young executives on their journey. I am delighted that under the Fraunhofer program I was able to be the mentor of a colleague in the Fraunhofer head quarters and accompany colleagues at the Technical University Munich.
What was the best advice you have ever received?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: For me the advice to always be and stay curious was very helpful. Curiosity is a very useful characteristic as it motivates again and again to get to the bottom of things and also uncover the background of the most complex issues which are not obvious at first glance. It is curiosity which precedes outstanding achievements. I therefore pass on this advice to my students, doctoral students and staff: To have an open mind and being curious is an important prerequisite for the emergence of innovative ideas and impulses. Companies increasingly recognize this and therefore give their employees freedom to act out their curiosity and later the company benefits from this.
What can young people at the beginning of their career learn from you?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: To show the crucial curiosity I described and to keep hold of it, even after a possible failure and/or to continue working on a problem until options for a solution have been found. In this context one has to talk about start ups as there are still relatively few young entrepreneurs in Germany. In order to change this we need a new error culture which does not see flawed business activities as a failure but as a learning process. Many successful entrepreneurs made several start attempts until an innovative business idea succeeded. In Germany we also have to change the willingness to take bigger financial risks. For example there is an urgent need for action in Germany to bring together young entrepreneurs with business angels and venture capital companies. That means potential and financially powerful investors invest in innovative business ideas and enter a certain risk. This works in other countries for example the USA much better. But the latest developments also show that in Germany a process of rethinking has begun and successful business men, who themselves were once young entrepreneurs, increasingly invest in innovative start ups and support them financially.
What do you think are the biggest differences between the generations?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The baby boomer generations lived in a time of unknown economic upsurge with almost full employment, had major career and educational opportunity regardless of their background and are today mostly socially well protected. These conditions of life differentiate the baby boomer generation fundamentally from all subsequent generations who are shaped by globalization and technological progress. Here of course the opening of markets and the emergence of the Internet have to be mentioned. All these developments shape the respective generation immensely.
What have you learned up to now from the generation X (1965-1980) / baby boomers (1950-1965) as from the younger generation Z (born after 1995)?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: One can learn from the different generations that each one is shaped by very different values and norms which are typical for the respective era and significantly influence thinking and acting. Whereas the baby boomers have stronger local roots and collectivism or the collective “we“ play a major role, for generation Z values such as international and global roots and individualization are of much greater importance. That manifests itself in trivial things such as the nature and duration of the respective media use: Each generation has its own preferred medium because it has had a decisive effect on the era they belong to.
In your opinion, how will the GenY & GenZ change the working world, education and society?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The generation Y and Z will certainly change society and its sub systems, I do however look at the developments the other way round: both generations will have to strongly conform to the external conditions which they find and have to adjust. Here digitalization has to be mentioned which will shape this generation more more than anything else. It will fundamentally change the entire functioning of society. For example the digital working world of the future will be shaped by significantly more flexible working conditions and the share of independent work could increase significantly. Many jobs at the interface man-machine could become more similar. This requires more subject-independent qualification requirements across sectors. This in turn requires an adjustment by the education system which is currently geared towards specialization and specialist knowledge. And in order to achieve this impulses are needed which come from the level of the whole society and politics.
Would you say that you influence society or can influence it?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: I would say that in principal everybody can influence society. Let‘s take sustainability for example: When all of us together act more sustainably and change our actions on a small scale accordingly we can together make a change on a large scale. As an innovation researcher I naturally have possibilities in different ways and on different levels to make an impact on society: For example to make certain recommendations for action in our studies which will then be considered and implemented by politics or in industry. Obtaining scientific expertise is an important part of our work at Fraunhofer ISI and of my team at the Department of Innovation and TechnologieManagement at KIT. This is very much requested by our clients from politics, industry and society. We have asserted the view that we can influence and shape futures ourselves if the appropriate impulses are given early enough.
Thank you very much Marion for that #ymazing interview!
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