From Necessary Evil to Innovation Center: How Höganäs Reinvented Their IT Department


“Think of it from the user perspective.” For years I’ve had these words on my office wall, and it’s become our IT slogan. On a personal level, I don’t like telling people no, but it’s more than that. My idea of IT is that it’s about making the user’s life better. IT should enable a company’s employees, whether it’s finding solutions to big business questions or ensuring that all the little things work so they fade into the background. Always ask: How can IT help you?

To effectively be that supporting engine, IT needs to win over a company’s employees. When I first started at North American Höganäs as an intern in 2006, it was the opposite. IT was viewed as a necessary evil that kept the computers running, and very little innovation happened as a result. 

But at the same time I began here, we had a new CEO who embraced technology and completely changed the way Höganäs viewed the IT department. Founded in 1797 in Sweden, Höganäs is the world’s largest producer of powdered metals with a global reach. As IT manager for the North American division, I’m responsible for our four US-based sites. Since I joined, we’ve done a lot of work to make IT a driving engine. The problem was, our network forced us to keep saying no. 

“No” Is an Innovation Killer

Our old network was very flat. We had no visibility, so when it came to troubleshooting, we had little information to go on. We used inexpensive, low-end switches, so when they went down, no one really knew how to manage them. Our most common question for troubleshooting was “Did you reboot it?” because if rebooting didn’t fix it, we’d have to call in for help. We ended up farming out a lot of our IT as a result.

We had no VLANs and our network didn’t reach everywhere we needed it to. People would need WiFi in certain areas, but we wouldn’t have PoE switches or cabling there. We had to say no a lot because our network was so bare bones.

When IT becomes the team that shoots down ideas, end users stop trying to innovate.

The problem with saying no so often—beyond being not fun—is that eventually people quit asking, because they already know the answer. That means you lose out on opportunities to help that person and drive the company forward. You think, “No one’s coming to me with issues, so everything’s fine,” when really it’s because they’ve found their own workarounds. We saw a lot of that when I started here: people bringing in their own solutions or just going back to paper and pencil. That’s an innovation killer.

Building a Strong Foundation

The straw that broke the camel’s back was that we were in desperate need of a phone system upgrade. Our new CEO saw the old digital phone system used at our four US sites and said, “We need to take a serious look at an IP-based system here.” He knew about VoIP and its benefits, but for VoIP to work, we needed VLANs for voice networking. 

This began our search for a new network. We looked at so many different solutions at the time: Avaya, HP, and Dell. It wasn’t until we worked with Cisco’s Customer Experience team that we realized they know more than everyone else, and Cisco could bring everything together. They’re years ahead in that regard. No other company in the world can connect you with the full product suite like Cisco can. It means you can manage extra large systems with a small number of people.

Cisco also appreciated the technical challenge posed by our business and even understood the physical constraints that our factory environment created. One of the Cisco engineers said to me, “I’ll tell you why your WiFi’s not working. Imagine you’re driving at night in heavy rain. You can only see 10 meters ahead, max, right? Your WiFi is the headlights and your metal powder in the air is the rain.” 

Everyone else’s response was, “This is going to be difficult. I’m not sure we can do this.” But Cisco approached this like a challenge they wanted to overcome. It was reassuring how they were almost excited to solve this. 

Learning By Doing

When it came time to implement, Cisco's Customer Experience experts conducted a WiFi site survey. I stuck with their advanced system engineer the entire time and learned tons about WiFi in the process. That’s another reason I’m glad we chose Cisco. I know many vendors would say, “Here’s your solution in a box. Go ahead and turn the knobs.” Whereas Cisco explained how everything worked, which inspired me to pick up that technology on my own.

Find IT vendors who want to teach you to fish, not sell you fish.

The advanced services team completed the survey and then turned it over to the local SEs for Pennsylvania. They came in and were onsite with a partner throughout the entire process. The process of rolling this all out over half a million square feet consumed about a year of my life. But it was fun.

I don’t like having people do things for me, so throughout this process I looked over everyone’s shoulder saying, “You show me, and I’ll do the next one.” The implementation was a great time, because I learned something new every day. 

Opening Pandora’s Box

I began to notice improvements to our network when the fork truck drivers stopped complaining about the inability to scan bags. The next thing I noticed was a colleague’s expression when they said they needed to work from a particular space and I replied, “You’re good to go. Just get on the WiFi.” 

By allowing them to go wireless, we’ve untethered our employees. Putting tablets in our operation team’s hands means they don’t have to sit in the control room anymore. They can walk out onto the factory floor while running the automation system over WiFi.

I remember in particular one visitor from our Sweden office asked, “Where’s your WiFi? We need to work out here.”

I said, “Just open your laptop. It’ll work.”

They looked unconvinced. “Really?”

“Go stand over by the big furnaces and open your laptop,” I said. “I promise you it’ll work.” The look on their face. They couldn’t get over our WiFi coverage. I think our Sweden office still doesn’t have the pervasive wireless we do. At our plants, I’m pretty sure you can get WiFi in our closets. 

Before Cisco, we were flying almost completely blind, with a lot of flubbing and guessing. And if someone were to take a static IP address and punch it in as our core router, they could have taken out the whole network. 

Today we have Cisco Identity Service Engine (ISE), which makes it easy to see where that person is, what they’re running, and their security level. We have provisions in place to ensure we’re secure. For my IT team of five, that visibility is a game changer, because we don’t have time to spend hours troubleshooting. I also have the assurance that the system will never go down, because we’ve built redundancy throughout the network. Under every circumstance, we’ve got backups for our 24/7 operations.

It’s been 13 years now since we began addressing our network, which opened up Pandora’s box. Instead of turning our end users down, we started to say, “Yes, we can.” In all our sites around the world, there’s always been this fine line between the Automation network, which is its own independent network, and the IT network. 

With our new IT network, we’re now able to marry the two networks for the first time, meaning the Automation department can plug in different sensors, monitors, and data collection units they never could before. We can track things like water flows and power usage, or get alerts when there’s an issue downstream or upstream of Operations. 

Our Automation group is super happy, because we can now begin the digitalization age of our factories. And it’s all because of building this network with higher-end switches with network segmentation and built-in security. There’s all this potential for innovation when everyone’s connected.

The Future of Visibility and Speed

I’m incredibly excited about what’s next: DNA Center and HyperFlex. Cisco DNA Center is going to change the way we deploy our network, improve our visibility, and make our network truly intelligent. We’re talking online provisioning, almost zero-touch switch deployment, and integration with ISE. I’m excited to see how that will change the way we work every day.

I believe going all-flash with HyperFlex will dramatically improve the speed of our network. HyperFlex will enable us to build out a high-end, robust, fast VDI deployment, giving our executive team, sales department, and local users the freedom to work without being tied to a laptop. They can get a full computer experience on an iPad, including full video. We even put graphics cards into our HyperFlex. They’ll be able to use AutoCAD on an iPad if they want to.

Because HyperFlex can grow out so easily and it integrates so well with the system we already have, we know if we run out of space, we can just add more. It was actually cheaper than going with a SAN solution. We thought, “We’re getting all this extra stuff for less money?” It was a no-brainer.

Let Go of Your Fear and Embrace What’s Next

Looking back on this network overhaul, my advice to anyone looking to make the switch is: Don’t be afraid to change. That might sound obvious, but I know it can be easy to fall into that fear zone, to think: “It’s going to be such a disruption,” or “I can’t get my head around it,” or “What if it doesn’t work right?” 

Let go of those fears and jump into these advanced network designs, because this is the way to get ahead and spawn the kinds of innovations I’ve talked about. All these things came from just taking it one day at a time with the end goal of a cutting-edge network. Yes, there will be disruption, but do your homework and plan it correctly and you can minimize downtime. Once it’s complete, the disruption will have been worth it.

My second piece of advice is to look at this as an opportunity to learn and to invest in your people. Almost all my staff, including me, started here as interns. Training people and letting them take on projects is how you make great employees and technical leads. 

Paying an outside person to do the installation for you might be easier, but when you run into an issue at 10 p.m., you’ll have to call outside tech support. Whereas when I give one of my people a project, they’re going to learn everything they can about it. It becomes a system they understand, and they own that project. It’s been a very successful way of working for me. Now, we have this advanced network and I find myself saying no a lot less often. Being a yes-man isn’t always a bad thing.