London’s Victoria train station is remarkably busy and bustling at any time and on any day of the year. As one of the main transport hubs in and out of the largest city in Europe, this is understandable. But visit in the middle of a weekday at the height of summer – do not let England’s perennially grey outlook fool you; London in late June can be stifling – and you’ll soon find yourself embroiled in a battle against the elements, the traffic, the noise and the army of commuters and tourists fighting their way to their destination.
“Over many years now we have actually got to a point where our customers expect high standards of reliability and service from our technologies.”
Hardened Londoners have developed an effective shield against such an onslaught. They stare blankly ahead, fanning their faces with rolled-up copies of the city's Evening Standard newspaper, jostling and rushing with or against the madding tide of people; expertly straddling the narrow path that separates rude from hurried. Respite is hard to come by. Pubs adorned with colourful hanging baskets of flowers look charming and inviting from the outside, but are often oppressively heaving within. Cold blasts of air conditioning as you enter shopping centres tempt you to linger under their chilled breeze awhile; sharp elbows to your ribcage quickly tell you that that's not such a good idea.
Amid such organised chaos stands the John Lewis Partnership's HQ. Tall and bulky, the partnership's relatively nondescript building dominates one section of the famous Victoria Street. Here, in the heart of London, you would expect the headquarters of one of the nation's best-loved high street names to be equally hectic, but once through the glass doors and into the foyer, the traffic horns, pneumatic drills and sound of the street melts away. Calm envelopes you as the organisation's smooth professionalism takes over.
High up on the tenth floor is where John Keeling and his team work. Panoramic views towards Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park in the distance immediately draw the eye, but what is most striking is just how peaceful and relaxed the office is. In a way, it is hard to believe that this is the IT hub of an organisation that has experienced healthy growth in the last quarter, driven in part by strategies developed in the IT departments that were designed to help the partnership gain a better insight into the shopping trends and habits of its loyal customers.
John Lewis, as well as Waitrose, are much-loved high street names throughout the UK. John Keeling, as an IT Director for the partnership, is tasked with the challenge of helping drive the company to greater heights through the implementation of better, bolder and more inventive IT strategies. As he relaxes into his seat - eyes sparkling and a contented air settled assuredly on to his shoulders - it is hard to imagine how a man laden with such responsibility can appear to take it all so easily in his stride.
How does the John Lewis Partnership utilise technology to help improve its customers' experience?
John Keeling. The John Lewis Partnership doesn't just use technology to become more efficient, which means better supply chains, more efficient administration procedures, things like that. We also use technology to create differentiation; particularly around the way we conduct customer service, and the way we provide a different experience to our customer. So it's more of a strategic thing; if you go into a John Lewis store today you see the John Lewis Gift List system, which used to be the old wedding list system. Customers can go in, they take a scanner and walk around the shop, scanning items they'd like to put on their list, and then that list can be put online for people to view and purchase from.
That system was, and still is, a market leading product that uses technology to actually provide a real different kind of service. And if you go into our Waitrose supermarkets you will see many with our self-scan hand scanners, designed for quick scans that can also drive increased footfall to our stores. These types of technologies make a difference for us. So from this point of view, technology provides improved customer service, which enhances our reputation of delivering great customer service and great value.
Can you describe how these technological decisions are communicated through to the business management?
JK. We're business-driven; we work very closely with the business and system teams and the underlying technology these departments use. This is a very close relationship that enables us to look at not only new technologies that we are implementing, but also identify how reliant we are on our technology. So whether this is the point of sale system or customer systems that we rely on - and we do - they have got to be resilient; they have got to be robust; they have got to be available. And over many years now we have actually got to a point where our customers expect high standards of reliability and service from our technologies, and this information is fed back up to myself and the systems team.
There is an expectation that people want instant service now; they are not going to wait around, because they will go off somewhere else very quickly if your systems are not reliable and fast.
What green initiatives and environmental responsibilities is the John Lewis Partnership adopting over the next few years?
JK. Like any other retailer we need to take these issues seriously, and I think we have taken quite a lead in green IT and a number of other initiatives. There are two ways of looking at what we've done. Firstly, there is the greening of IT, which is making IT as 'green' as you can. But it's also about how IT can be used to make your business green. We created awareness first, which is an important and effective step to take, and then the next step we took was developing a system that automatically turned systems off where before they would have been left on. This was a simple technological change that has had a notable environmental impact.
Secondly, we have made quite a big move recently toward what we call our second data centre, where we have worked very closely with BT to make a centre that is very, very green. The sort of things you put in there is virtualisation, which means that we are using smaller power units but producing more computer power. The whole way that we drive performance through them takes a lot of effort and time, but it has been worth it - we now have a very high green rating. The IBM mainframe that we use is one of the greenest platforms in the business, but they can only become green if you can actually get the most out of it, so it is really important that you have on board the people who can make this happen, skilled partners who can affect change.
We also manage the temperatures of our data centres too. By allowing them to run a few degrees hotter than you might otherwise, you can significantly reduce fuel bills, so quite often our green initiatives have been able to save us money too. Managing the data centre so that it is efficient is absolutely key to becoming greener.
How does the John Lewis Partnership view the current trend for cloud computing?
JK. I sit on a number of advisory boards that consider the cloud, and the point I always like to raise is - what is it? What is the cloud? In my view, there is nothing new here. People talk about things like software as a service, or they used to talk about time-sharing back in the 60s and 70s, where you used to buy computer-time from a company who ran a big data centre somewhere. These were early forerunners to the cloud.
What the cloud of today is really about is buying service: whether it be storage; whether it be CPU mixes or CPU processing power; whether it be a piece of software that you buy that runs somewhere in this cloud, whatever it might be. An example is Google mail where you're buying a service rather than running it yourself, so you're buying where that service sits. I see the cloud as an alternative delivery model, where you don't have to do all the work yourself.
The difference between private and public clouds is a very interesting one. Because we run our own data centre, a virtualised data centre, it has storage area networks - a shared storage platform, which runs an IBM mainframe, which is again a shared platform where you've got networks that are actually shared. In some respects, our internal customers, our internal trading divisions, are buying from us processing power. In some ways this could be classed as the cloud. However, I think there are a number of steps that need to mature before this could be considered a full private cloud.
Externally, in the public sphere, it is the same thing. We could just be buying processing power that we use, and it could be anywhere in the world. And I guess that is where some of the issues of the cloud lie: is it secure? Where's my data? Because there are certain rules and legislations that apply to that data, so I can't just have it floating around anywhere, in many cases (but not all) we need to actually know where it is.
These are the issues that are the main inhibitors for public clouds. When you are a business of our scale, you can quite economically create your own private cloud, so any organisation that has this capability can get the benefit of both. So, you could create a great private cloud for all the sensitive data and manage that yourself, and then there are other areas of the business that perhaps make more sense to put out into the public cloud. So in terms of 'the cloud', I think it is really about different delivery models, shared delivery models, and there are various challenges about using it: commercial challenges, security challenges and economical challenges, and you've got to make sure that it is right for your business.
Do you think the public cloud will reach a point of maturation whereby you would be comfortable putting more data out there?
JK. I do. I think so, over time. It still has a way to go but eventually there will be an even greater commoditisation of IT where, just like electricity, we'll just plug into the national grid and away we go. We have got some way to go until we get to that point, but we are talking about an industry that does mature things, so it takes a while for that mature state to be realised. So I think that the John Lewis Partnership will continue to work toward a plan where we continually mature what we already have and create a private cloud. However we will be looking for opportunities to use the private cloud particular for suitable point solutions.
How do you align business acumen with IT expertise in order to ensure that the IT department is seen as more than just a cost centre?
JK. I think we have a great advantage here at the John Lewis Partnership in that we are co-owners in the business. The Partners in our IT departments take a huge interest in not just their own functions in the business but also in the company as a whole. As a result of that, we have developed a working culture that allows us to become natural collaborators with the business.
One of our principles is for us to work together. Our IT departments work very well with our business, which is a really big plus, helped by being co-owners of the business; there's a common goal and common interest there that makes a big difference. But to be taken seriously and to be trusted by fellow business partners, you've got to be able to deliver the basics. Once you start doing that then there are more opportunities to develop thought leadership. This has become more difficult in recent years because technology in general has started to get closer to the customer, which presents a whole new set of challenges.
People in general - not just the IT community - show more of an interest in technology today, which is one of our main challenges. The Internet has made people more technically savvy, which leads to increased security risks, added expense, different types of training and recruitment - all sorts of challenges are evolving for the IT department.
So I think it is important for the IT community here to be a trusted partner. When you are, people will come to you for solutions, and that is one of our challenges - to make sure that we can be seen to be responding to requests for assistance in a positive way. There are three things I look back on over the last 15-20 years that have had large impacts on how we work. The first was the PC, people having their own desktops at home. Then there was email communication; people creating documents, sending them, becoming more technically savvy, linked up to an online community, things like that. The Internet created so many commerce opportunities, but also instant access to information and increased security threats.
I think we're faced with a new wave now, which is the mobility and connectivity offered by smartphones. Over the next few years we expect to see enormous growth in this area, where the 'phone' element is secondary and people use it for Facebook, Twitter, GPS, geo-location, games, TV etc. I see huge potential here, and huge challenges too. I see a changing face in the way our customers, and indeed society, will behave and shop. Even today people can walk into one of our stores armed with an iPhone app that scans prices and it gives them the three best prices on the market. Or you can download vouchers on to your phone and then a store knows where you are and offers you a real-time deal.
The expectations on service this brings is completely different to what we know. Technology is forming new habits, and we have to react to that.
From an IT perspective, how do you ensure the John Lewis Partnership is ready for the evolution the smartphone market is driving?
JK. I think we have to recognise that there is a lot of innovation going on out there. Companies like Apple and Google, as well as Microsoft, are changing the landscape, which is something we've got to be mindful of. In this aspect, it is the mobility issue that is most challenging; people now have increased access to the Internet through mobile devices, and the way they are communicating with one another through Twitter and what not, will change the face of commerce. We are faced with a generation that is constantly online, so the trick is how to manage that rather than fight it.
So we are constantly monitoring the marketplace for new social media tools that may have some impact upon the business. The implications at the moment are that if people are Twittering away about the Partnership then we'd like to know what they are saying. This is something we need to begin to consider. It's like having an ongoing real time customer survey! So as smartphone users become more and more able to go into our stores and scan our goods in order to find the best price, we need to be there, reacting to this change in consumer behaviour but, not only that, maintaining what our customers expect from us, which is good customer service, good quality in all we do. The challenge is not just 'getting it', but doing it well, too.
How do you think consumer technology will alter the way that the John Lewis Partnership, and all major commerce outlets, conduct their business?
JK. Our business is becoming a multi-channel business, and we will continue to refine that so that it is a more seamless experience for the customer. We are what you would call 'clicks and mortar', in that, whether it is a click of a mouse, a swipe of an iPad or an actual physical shop, we can deliver what our customers want.
As a business we are looking at different ways of engaging customers, so we have large stores, smaller format convenience stores [Waitrose], catalogues, the Internet, some franchises in the Middle East, smartphone access; basically everywhere the modern consumer expects us to be, we're there. The IT department has had to learn to adapt to this change. We need to know what our customers are connecting to, for example. Are they connected via 3G? What system are they coming through to? How can we identify this customer? Challenges like this are forever coming at us, so we have to understand our customers, understand availability, which links to the core traditional systems a normal retailer has to know, just on a larger, slicker and real-time basis.
So this leads to challenges around the types of systems and architecture that is required because in the end, IT is about data, and how you deliver it. It is no use if you cannot deliver it and understand it. It has to be available for any time, any place, any where. One of the largest investments we have made in the IT department is in ensuring our data centres can provide real agility. We host a lot of websites, and we have the capability to do this because our data is virtualised, it is green, it is efficient - we have really underpinned our technology, which is something I'm extremely pleased about.
We also have a communication network that has converged data and voice. By implementing this, we have created a digital landscape that enables us to do quite a lot things, such as putting out our own Wi-Fi to link into our networks. There are many more digital infrastructures that we are looking at that we are not doing yet, but are now in a good position to do so.
We have made big investments in technology in order to be ready to face the challenges of a digital, tech-savvy world. This commercial consumerisation of IT that is starting to appear is one of the main challenges, and I think our modern and agile infrastructure is extremely capable and a big plus for the John Lewis Partnership. Our fit and ready IT department is constantly evolving to meet the challenges posed by the consumers and support the needs of the business.
John Keeling graduated from London University in 1979 with a degree in computer science. He has spent the last 18 years at John Lewis Partnership, initially for Waitrose Systems and then for Computer Services. After being Head of Technical Support for two years he became Director of Computer Services in 2002. His responsibilities cover shared IT infrastructure (including the John Lewis Partnership's Data Centre), shared systems (Finance and Personnel), and shared IT services for both the John Lewis Partnership's major divisions of Waitrose and John Lewis.