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Nordic CIO interview: Helena Skarle, Handicare

Swedish CIO believes more women might get the top IT jobs if organisations look beyond IT skills

For more than 30 years, the IT industry has bemoaned the lack of women entering the field. For just as long, IT departments have struggled to “get close to the business”, as changing corporate priorities have outpaced technology development.

Although these are very different problems, they may have similar solutions, according to Helena Skarle, executive vice-president, strategy and IT at Handicare, a global supplier of stairlifts and equipment for people with reduced mobility.

At the age of 31, Skarle took over the most senior IT role in the company. It was not long before she noticed the gender imbalance – and the reason for it. 

“I noticed IT is very male-dominated,” she says. “It is very difficult to say why, but I also know that when we recruit, it is very difficult to get applications from women. Even if we have a policy of having a 50/50 male-female split, it is nearly impossible to get that number of female applicants.

“One way to address this is to say that to see transformation at the top, you need to start at the bottom. If you attract more women into the industry, then you can promote more to management.”

However, Skarle’s career did not start in IT. She graduated with a masters in business administration from Stockholm School of Economics in 2009 and worked in several business roles, including periods at Findus and H&M, before becoming a management consultant at Ernst & Young. She moved to Handicare in 2015 as business development director and was promoted to her current role in June 2016.

Recruiting from outside IT could be a way to address the gender imbalance in the profession, she says. “If you broaden your selection to those with a business profile, then naturally the selection of women will be much greater than just looking at those with an IT background.”

This will also help IT get close to the business and the IT team to acquire business skills, she says, which are particularly pressing matters for Handicare because of its approach to IT. Most of the company’s applications, hardware and infrastructure is outsourced to service providers and hosting companies, says Skarle.

“Given that we have outsourced the majority of our IT business, then, naturally, being in control of contracts, managing relationships with suppliers, prioritising and following budgets, developing vendors and ensuring that you have the internal business buy-in – all these become more critical than actually knowing the technicalities of the IT infrastructure.”

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Nevertheless, people coming into IT with a business background need the right support around them – a mix of skills is necessary in the top team, says Skarle.

“When I took over, I was grateful for my team, which has great expertise and knowledge,” she says. “It would have been an impossible task otherwise, because you are sometimes in the hand of the supplier [in terms of technical detail]. You need expertise internally, as well.”

Handicare operates six manufacturing and assembly sites and 17 workshops, and has a presence in 11 countries. It employs about 1,200 people and recorded revenue of €284m in 2017.

Skarle took over the IT leadership role as the organisation was consolidating from multiple enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems down to just one, a hosted installation of Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012, to get more control at a global level. Most of its offices have accepted the new software, although the US and the UK are still to migrate to it.

At the same time, Handicare was changing its IT service provider from Norway’s TeleComputing, which was only handling infrastructure, to CGI in Sweden, which became responsible for infrastructure and applications on a global level. The aim was to unify policies and processes, and ensure applications are hosted on the same platforms.

“There was a lot of activity up in the air,” says Skarle. “The ERP implementation had gone well from a technical perspective, but not from a business perspective. And there was the transition of service providers.

“IT was seen as something outside the business, with its own life. For us, it was important to get IT inside the business and working towards the same goals as the rest of the organisation.

“It was working well, but it was not always clear what IT was bringing to the table. IT is becoming more and more important as a critical enabler for our business. I saw it as an exciting challenge to take that on.”

New ERP system

As well internal efficiencies, Handicare wanted to exploit a new ERP system to improve order processing and customer service. For example, when customers ordered stairlifts, sales agents used to write down their stair measurements with pen and paper and logged them into the system back at the office. Now they can record measurements on a tablet, which sends them to the order management system, which is linked to the ERP and factory management systems.

This kind of service is necessary to keep pace with consumer expectations, says Skarle. “As consumers see how quick it is to download an app onto their phone, they want the same experience with any business. That is a challenge for companies – it is hard to adjust and offer a new utility when you have legacy systems.”

Modernisation of applications is also important when trying to attract and retain a younger workforce for the business, says Skarle, who adds that she is only too aware of her millennial cohorts’ expectations of technology.

“If you start at Google, you will see everything is so much quicker there – and that’s the talent that business want to attract,” she says. “Millennials want speed and flexibility and require IT solutions that they can connect to from where they are.

“You don’t just need the right IT solution – you need access from anywhere. This is also a topic for HR – you need to review how you work as a business, with millennials asking for more remote working.”

The internet of things is next on the agenda. Handicare’s IT team is investigating the technology, which could help hospital customers to locate equipment and potentially improve maintenance levels.

Such a move could help propel Handicare into an era where technology-enabled services could give it a competitive advantage, says Skarle.  

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