Founded in 1864, John Lewis today generates more than £4bn a year in sales through its department stores and online operations.
As well as being a major technology retailer, John Lewis has a prodigious appetite for using the latest IT in its internal and customer-facing operations.
The man responsible for driving the company's use of technology is former British Airways CIO Paul Coby, who joined John Lewis as its IT director in 2011.
In an interview with V3, Coby said that John Lewis has set up the JLab, a startup incubator where small businesses and entrepreneurs receive support and mentorship to create products and services that John Lewis could use or acquire to push new technology into its stores.
"We wanted to find some new companies that had a really good idea, it might be a product, it might be a piece of software, that we could use," he said.
"We also wanted to make some money for the [John Lewis] Partnership, so investing in a successful company would be good, and we also wanted to help the startup scene in the UK."
Now in its second year, the JLab hosts five startups from the UK and further afield, whittled down from 180 companies that applied for a place in the incubator.
John Lewis may not be a prominent technology brand or venture capitalist investment firm, but Coby explained that a form of symbiotic relationship exists between the JLab residents and the retailer, whereby they can learn from each other.
The startups gain an insight into the processes, practices and needs of a well-established retailer, while John Lewis can learn from the attitudes and approaches that underpin plucky, idea-fuelled entrepreneurs.
"We can learn a lot from them in terms of their energy and desire to move quickly," Coby said, explaining how John Lewis has created its own area for coming up with different and clever uses of technology in-house.
"We set up something called Room Y, which is our own innovation hole, and they knock things up," he said, noting that those working in Room Y adopt an experimental attitude to using technology in stores and are not afraid to try and fail at projects.
One such project was the creation of a virtual dressing room using a digital mirror and Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor technology to superimpose various outfits over a user so they could see how items of clothing fitted without trying them on.
However, Coby said the mirror was eventually dropped because the technology behind it was not flexible enough to make it effective.
"This was a success and a failure," he said. "It was a success because customers liked it and partners liked it because they could talk about the fashion; as a piece of technology it was a bit iffy."
"Fashion is very fast-moving, each season it changes, while taking 3D images is a time-consuming and quite difficult business. For that to work permanently you'd have to be able to import all those images and you probably have to do it a bit better, so we stopped it.
"That's quite a good example of doing a piece of innovation, but the learning was: we're not ready. The technology wasn't quite ready and certainly the ability to do 3D images [easily] was not ready."
Coby said that despite ditching the virtual mirror, John Lewis may well come back to the concept once core technologies improve.
"I do think that's the sort of thing you have to be open to," he said. "It's quite challenging for big organisations, but I think that's one of the reasons for having JLab," he said.
Considered cloud adoption
Like many established companies looking to modernise their IT systems and processes, John Lewis has its eye on cloud-powered services.
"Across the partnership we use Google [cloud apps]. So we're on Gmail, Google+, Google Drive, and one of the key reasons for that was how can you talk about being a [multichannel] business when you're not able to talk to our partners using modern technology," he said.
"We've just finished rolling out Google [Apps] to all our stores, which has gone fantastically well – people had a ball working it out."
Coby also said John Lewis uses the Salesforce1 platform as the foundation of the customer relationship management system used in its stores and call centre, while Rackspace cloud services are used for carrying out development and testing of non-business critical applications.
Coby explained that using such cloud services has given John Lewis more flexibility and speed when it comes to developing apps and creating digital systems.
However, given that John Lewis has been around for over 150 years, it's no surprise that some of the business's critical systems are not in the first flush of youth and still run in the company's two data centres.
"Given where we've come from, there are a lot of legacy systems. And legacy systems are good things as they are fully debugged, fully depreciated and everybody knows how things work," he said.
"Against that, they are old technologies and slow development down, but we still run our website on servers in our data centres."
Coby explained that while John Lewis uses cloud services in some areas of its business, the need for a highly reliable, continuously running infrastructure with fast response times is critical for the company's online store and is not something he is convinced the cloud can currently facilitate.
"We have no ideological problems about using the cloud at all, given that we've been quite aggressive about using Google and indeed Salesforce," he said.
"But I think you need to be absolutely convinced that your core elements could exist in the cloud or in multiple clouds; are they really going to have the availability and reliability that you need?
"So I think we have an open mind, but at the moment I'm not seeing compelling cases; are we willing to look? Yes absolutely."
As it stands, John Lewis effectively operates a hybrid infrastructure within the kind of bimodal IT model touted by Gartner, which advocates using cutting-edge digital technology to innovate business processes while keeping core critical infrastructure separate, on technology with a proven track record.
Pondering IoT potential
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been widely touted as a technology trend that will shake up the retail world, but Coby is yet to be convinced.
"It's felt like a lot of solutions looking for a problem to solve; how smart do you want your kettle to be?" he asked, noting that while John Lewis itself sales many smart devices, the IoT will only achieve its full potential when smart devices are bought together to provide a compelling benefit.
Rather than bombard consumers with information on specific things such as light bulb energy consumption, Coby said systems and services need to be created that are genuinely useful to people, such as informing them how to reduce the overall energy consumption of a smart home.
"I think that then starts to get really, really interesting," he said. "It's about thinking about what we as consumers and human beings actually want."
Coby believes the IoT could deliver significant business benefits once networks of connected devices are combined with the cloud, big data and analytics.
"Out of this tidal wave of data the trick is finding the one piece of information that makes a difference," he said. "It's about analytics and understanding your business and it's about then being able to make decisions and understand the implications of things happening.
"I think there's enormous potential here, but it's actually hard to get the value; it's a hard problem to solve," Coby said, adding that John Lewis will be looking at how it can tap into this nexus of technology trends to benefit its business.
John Lewis is a good example of a company with a long-established reputation making use of IT and wider elements of the technology world to evolve rather than revolutionise its business, thereby demonstrating an appetite for innovation without disrupting a business model that has worked for over a century and a half.
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