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CIO interview: Mia Forsäng, Swedish municipality Vara

Despite moving on to pastures new, the former CIO at Swedish municipality Vara tells Computer Weekly how she used her people skills to transform the IT department

Mia Forsäng is a prime example of the significance of people skills in IT leadership. She tells Computer Weekly how an ultimatum to IT staff made the team pull together.

In five years, the teacher-turned-CIO was able to transform the IT of Swedish municipality Vara and earn it a nomination for Sweden’s IT municipality of the year.

The CIO role in the 15,700-resident municipality came as a complete surprise to Forsäng. At the time, in 2010, she had worked as Vara’s education development manager and had previous experience as a teacher, but not in IT.

“One day my manager came to me and said, ‘I have a new job for you: CIO of Vara’. I just turned around on my heels and said, ‘That’s too much, no’,” Forsäng recalls with a smile. “But he said it wasn’t a question, it was an order, and that I start tomorrow. I was the CIO from that day on.”

Forsäng admits it was a major challenge to take on, but she has used her strong pedagogical and project management skills to compensate for a lack of IT experience. And her strategy has succeeded. In 2015, Vara became the first municipality in Sweden to roll out fibre broadband to all its residents and businesses.

Forsäng believes the key to the success of the fibre broadband project was giving all team members responsibility, and motivating people to cooperate across the municipality.

“We make a good team when everybody works towards the same goal. We have good communication between the politicians and everybody working at Vara,” she says. “A few years ago, Vara lost a lot of residents and businesses. [The politicians] knew something had to be done and saw digitisation as very important to the future. We thought that if we gave fibre to everyone, new companies would want to come here. Now Vara is growing.”

Platform struggles

Forsäng’s mantra from the start has been to accept she doesn’t have all the answers, and needs to ask a lot of questions as well as listen to both her team and users. In Vara, this means more than 1,500 people employed by the municipality.

For Forsäng, the first problem she needed to tackle was how to make IT work better as a unit. Everyone in the 14-member IT team was focused on their own individual tasks without any real coordination. Forsäng began changing this by encouraging open communication and giving the team a common goal, or practically an ultimatum, in the form of a new IT platform.

“I discussed with my employees how we need to change the platform. If we weren’t able to work together as a team, we would all be outsourced,” she says.

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The team was given 18 months to solve its internal problems and implement the shift from Novell to a Microsoft environment, and they pulled through. The new platform was successfully deployed in 2012, alongside Windows 7 for all Vara’s employees and students in the municipality. At the time, the change translated to faster logins and more efficient operations. The municipality has now already transitioned to Windows 10.

“It’s a lot of effort to change how people work. My hardest project [the platform change] came right at the start, but it did so much good for the municipality,” says Forsäng. “After [the project’s success] the politicians said we need to put more investment in digitisation.”

And the project wasn’t only acknowledged locally. Forsäng says the success of the platform project and later the swift fibre broadband launch, were probably a factor in Vara’s nomination for the best IT municipality in Sweden in 2015. In the same year, Forsäng was also nominated for Swedish CIO of the year.

“Why is she here?”

Over the years at Vara, Forsäng has started to appreciate her outsider’s perspective, and believes it has actually been beneficial for the municipality’s IT. She openly acknowledges the expertise of her employees and makes sure they feel included in the decision-making process. But while this has proven motivational for the whole team, the start was tough.

“They didn’t like me at the beginning, and thought ‘Why is she here?’ One day, one of the technicians came to me and said, ‘We are talking a lot about you in the cafeteria, and how you don’t know much about IT’,” recounts Forsäng. “But then he added, ‘We think that is good. We have to talk to you like we would to a customer, and you listen to all of us before you make a decision’. The engineers feel they have learnt a lot about how to speak with customers.”

“I’m trying to build a bag and put inside it everything a municipality needs for digitisation”

Mia Försäng, Vara


Forsäng considers this a major success, because the importance of listening to customers is the biggest lesson she has learnt as a CIO. It doesn’t matter how good a system or service is if it doesn’t meet the demands and needs of its users. Consequently, Vara’s IT team regularly meets with various users from teachers to elderly care staff, to hear about the IT services and equipment they need and want to use.

Furthermore, Försäng has kept Vara’s IT entirely in-house. This includes a service desk which all IT team members operate in rotation to better understand the practical problems users experience.

The work has only just started

After the completion of Vara’s fibre project, Forsäng felt it was time for a new challenge. In August 2016, she started as a digitisation-focused business developer at Svenska Stadsnät, a Swedish fibre network provider and subsidiary to Sweden’s largest teleoperator TeliaSonera.

“My role is to work with municipalities and companies to find out what they will need in future,” says Forsäng. “I’m trying to build a bag and put inside it everything a municipality needs [for digitisation]. It could be fibre, but it could also be digital services for healthcare, schools or the internet of things.”

She says the fast pace of digitisation can be particularly challenging for smaller municipalities. While they might believe embracing it is the way to move forward, investment in IT could mean not hiring more teachers or healthcare staff.

But the Swedish government is moving in the right direction. By 2020, its target is for 90% of the Swedish population to have access to 100Mbps broadband. The government has also introduced the tagline “Digital First” to emphasise the significance of digitisation in local government. Forsäng says this will help drive change in municipalities and stop them seeing IT as only a support function.

“The new IT trend is not to look at just one thing in a municipality, but to work with e-health care, with e-learning in schools and e-services for inhabitants. You have to be brave and try new things, because if you are not willing to be digital, you will be left out in the future,” concludes Forsäng.

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