John Lewis is 150 Years Old!

The John Lewis company is 150 years old this year.

Born in 1836, John Lewis grew up in Shepton Mallet and was apprenticed to a linen draper in Wells at the age of 14. He came to London and became a salesman for Peter Robinson, a well-known Oxford Street draper.

In 1864 John Lewis turned down the offer of becoming a partner in Robinsons and instead opened his own new shop at 132 Oxford Street, selling silk, wool and haberdashery.  On the first day he took 16s 4d!

By all accounts, he was an austere Victorian business who expected a lot from himself and his employees. But while most drapers of the time worked to a 33% profit on sale price, Lewis chose to make a profit of just 25% on his selling prices and insisted that his customers benefit from the good purchase price negotiated by his buyers.


Lewis’s son, John Spedan Lewis, was born in 1885 and joined the family firm on his 21st birthday in 1906.  He received from his father a quarter of the John Lewis business, valued at £50,000 – a tidy sum in the Edwardian era.   Spedan Lewis became a director of Peter Jones Limited which had been acquired.  Along with his father and brother, Spedan enjoyed an income of £26,000 a year – again, a huge amount in those days.  He became increasingly uncomfortable that this income was considerably more than the entire wage bill for the company’s workforce of over 300 people, which was only £16,000.

After a riding accident in 1909, Spedan had to convalesce for two years and during that time thought deeply about business and society.  In January 1914 John Lewis senior handed over managerial control of Peter Jones to Spedan, who shortened the working day by an hour and started to pool commission for staff.  He also introduced frank two-way communication with his workforce, with staff committees with elected representatives.

Over the next four decades he developed his unique form of industrial democracy that was and is the John Lewis Partnership – the largest example of employee-owned business in the UK. The Partnership now has a turnover of £10bn and some 91,000 Partners across John Lewis (with 41 shops, since York opened last week) and Waitrose (with 300 branches).

Spedan summed up his philosophy as:

“The Partnership’s supreme purpose is to secure the fairest possible sharing by all its members of the advantages of ownership – gain, knowledge and power; that is to say their happiness in the broadest sense of that word, so far as happiness depends upon gainful occupation.”

I always say that if you want a stretching business goal, that is one – and one we strive to live up to in the Partnership, with our democratic Partner Voice and our restless innovation like JLAB.

“What would Spedan do?” is a good challenge about any initiative.

I think Spedan’s values are as valid and challenging today as they were in 1914 or 1954.  What we are constantly working to do is to make them relevant to a modern world being revolutionised by technology.  The way we all shop has changed dramatically in the last decade and will, I believe, change even more dramatically in the next.

But the values of the Partnership endure and are what customers value in the Partnership. They are as relevant in 2014 as they were when Spedan formulated them after his accident, which is why I love this ad from 2012:

What’s Important Doesn’t Change

Never Knowingly Undersold since 1925

In Store | Online | Mobile


More on “50 Things I wish I had known…”: the video online

Simon LaFosse and his team have made some changes to the website about the “50 Things” Event, so you can now see the video highlights or – if anyone is a real glutton for punishment – watch the whole thing including the presentation and Q&As.

As is often is the case the Q&As are in many ways the most helpful part.

There is also a link to the whole lot on YouTube.

What is Leadership in IT?

This is a topic I sometimes get asked about by journalists.  There are numerous articles published in magazines and online about “leadership”.  Consultants will sell you studies and there is generally supposed to be a rather large problem about it.

The IT profession worries a lot about how it is perceived by its customers, partners and suppliers: whether it has a seat at the top table, whether it is listened to and, when it is feeling collectively pessimistic, whether anyone is listening at all.

Now there is a lot you could talk about here and I will only attempt to answer the leadership question.  It’s something I have put a lot of thought into, after all it is a large and a complex topic.

Lets start at the boring end of this and define our terms, leadership in the Oxford Dictionaries Web-site is defined as:

  • “the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this”

Not much use is it?  So we then get to leader where the first definition is:

  • “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”

This is not getting anywhere is it?  So then we take a look at lead and at last with the third definition (ignoring the parts about leading animals and winning a race) we find:

“#3 be in charge or command of:

  • organise and direct
  • be the principal player of (a group of musicians)
  • set (a process) in motion
  • begin a report or text with a particular item
  • in boxing make an attack
  • in card games play the first card”

So let’s see if we can work with these?  Well simply it is important to recognise that leading and leadership have many different meanings for different people, different organisations and different contexts.

There are four elements of this that resonate with me.  The first is that leadership in IT requires you to organise and direct. And I like the dictionaries juxtaposition here of ORGANISE and DIRECT.  It is a big risk that you may sometimes be tempted to do too much organising of the IT Department and forget to set strategic directions clearly; and vice versa since direction of IT without effective order and organisation will almost certainly end in tears.

Secondly setting a process in motion is of course also very familiar to anyone in modern organisations these days.  Leadership in the 21st Century is usually rarely in the military mode where you ask people who report to you to advance in a particular direction (or indeed shout CHARGE! follow me!).  Most likely in complex organisations these days IT leadership is about working with, persuading and influencing “business process owners”, in your and often in other companies or structures, to deliver together the shared objective.  Less dramatic than shouting CHARGE, it is probably harder to do and requires a completely different set of skills including, analysis, communications and political ‘know-how’.

Thirdly being the principal player of a group of musicians is a really tremendous definition, which I really like.  These days no-one in IT knows it all, understands every technology old and new, is a database expert and a networking genius, can manage waterfall and agile projects and so forth.  You rely on the talent and the experience of your immediate team and their teams.  If I have learnt one thing over my time as a CIO it is that IT is a team sport.  For it all to work it has all to work together and the analogy of an orchestra is an excellent one.  Whether the CIO is the conductor or the first violin depends on you, and I think sometimes it is smart to be part of the team and sometimes to conduct it.

Finally there is the boxing attack, and yes on a small number of issues you are going to have some fights.  Most things can be resolved by compromise but leadership does involve having some principles and lines in the sand, where an IT leader will need to fight his or her corner.  An example will be the point where if a system is not renewed the business is in danger, or you are insecure, or don’t have adequate back-up.  You cannot compromise on those issues.

I invariably disappoint the journalists with complicated answers like this on IT leadership but I really do think it just depends – depends on the culture of your organisation, depends on the circumstances you find yourself in (a Recession requires very different leadership from a Boom) and above all depends on you.

But I would suggest you think as an IT leader where you want to be on the following dimensions:

  • organise
  • direct
  • process
  • conduct
  • (and very rarely) attack

Choose your path in IT – but stay flexible

It’s a scary thing, a blog – having promised to do it weekly, and on IT-related subjects, you find yourself – just back from a great weekend experiencing art and history in Paris – feeling guilty about not having posted.   The more so, since some people actually seem to be reading it – or opening the page at least!

So I thought I would pick up the e-skills theme from last week.  I try and do some mentoring of people in my IT department at BA, and occasionally they ask what steps they should be planning in their career.

My reply has two parts – first, with regards to a career plan: although it’s definitely worth having one, don’t necessarily expect life to turn out like that.  To be honest, I would have bet a fantastic amount, when I left university, against my becoming CIO of British Airways  – but that’s another story…  However, a plan does enable you to invest in yourself and your career in a planned way and, when faced with one of those unexpected twists of fates that life can throw in your path, at least you have a framework to respond.

The second part, which I propose to those who are not sure if they want to pursue a career in IT, is that there is more than one sort of ‘techie’, that they can pursue a variety of hybrid careers and can develop capabilities that make them valuable across the whole business.

Let me expand on this:  I believe that any IT department needs at least three sorts of leaders.   First there are – for want of a better expression – the ‘uber-techies’.  These people are probably among the most valuable assets any company possesses, though whether most organisations know that is debatable.  These are you most experienced and skilled experts in the company’s IT environments.  They know how it all fits together, what works well and what legacy you should be replacing.  You will be looking for them to solve the problem when there is an outtage. And they also understand the unexploited potential of your systems.

Second there are the hybrid business and IT – or IT and business – managers.   At some point in their past, they cut code or designed systems.  Today, they manage the operations and deliver the new systems.  They are expert at managing internal skills and external providers – and woe betide either group if they try and pull the wool over their eyes.   They know what IT is there for and what IT can do, and what it cannot.   Without these very skilled people, costs run amok and delivery dates start slipping.

Last, and certainly not least, are the general managers who have no technical experience in IT but are interested in it and its potential, and understand that it really matters.   Many of them are fascinated by technology, and they are several roles in IT departments where they can add enormous value.   For instance, in relationship management – explaining IT to the rest of the organisation in plain English, managing your resources and business planning.

So there are many routes into – and out of – an IT department.  I suggest to any aspiring IT professional that they choose one of these paths, be the best they can in it, but always be ready to be flexible.

UK IT is a great success – let’s work to keep it that way!

More thoughts on the e-skills Manifesto

The UK scores top out of 27 European countries in terms of proportion of enterprises selling online.

But to grow the UK economy and create new jobs, we need more leaders and managers who understand of the strategic implications of technology, with the skills to develop technology-enabled business strategies and the personal motivation to stay current on technological advances.

We also need to invest in a technologically professional workforce in the UK.  And we need to invest in successful industries as well as bailing out failures.

The UK technology workforce has grown through the Recession and has doubled in size since the early 1990s to provide employment for 1.1 million people in highly-skilled, high value add jobs for the UK.  The Technology and Telecomms industry in the UK generates nearly four times the average value add for the UK.

But if we don’t act now, the writing is on the wall for UK IT.   Consider these statistics:

• the gender imbalance: only 17% of Technology professionals are female

• the uptake of IT-related GCSEs and A-levels: declining dramatically since 2002 and 2003 respectively

•  the UK’s education system: not supporting industry’s need for people with hybrid business and IT capability

• the IT literacy now a pre-requisite for getting a job: 92% of new recruits are required to have skills in the use of IT

• 77% of the UK’s current workforce uses IT in their everyday jobs, and the level of skill required is increasing all the time

And these are just some of the reasons why we urgently need an IT manifesto for the UK.

The IT industry in the UK is a fantastic success story: it contributes £71 billion a year value to the UK economy, the technology workforce has doubled since the early 1990s and software has grown at an average of 9% a year over the last decade.

This is undoubtedly a growing and vibrant part of our economy. Let’s work to keep it that way!

We all know the answer but few can execute

I was at a presentation last week on a successful IT project, or rather a successful project with IT at its heart.   Someone said all you have to do to deliver success is, “to link people and their processes to the technology”.  

Well, that says it all really and it’s tempting to just stop there. 

We all know that you can test IT systems and you should be able to make them work.  After all, they do what you tell them to do, don’t they, being simply ones and zer0s?   When things go wrong, it’s almost always because the IT does not fit the processes and/or the people are not ready or bought into using the new system.

I have had my share of such painful experiences – and we all try and learn from our mistakes. 

But, if you think about it, the answer is to form multi-disciplinary teams composed of experts in IT, experts in process, experts in how people change and – of course – experts in joining it all up. 

So why, if we all know this is the answer, does this not happen?  

I suggest there are two reasons, fundamentally.

First, companies like to keep IT in its box and, often, technology people like to live in their IT box too.   These days, every process in almost every business is enabled or driven by technology, so there is no excuse for separating process and IT.  

It sounds easy put like that, but no two business – or their processes – are the same.   Some processes need to be changed to fit the technology.  Others are so important or mission-critical that the IT has to change.   The challenge and the skill comes in judging what to change and when to change, so as to seamlessly join IT and process in harmony.

And this is easy when you compare it with the people issues!  Businesses are not just about investment and returns – they are about people’s interactions as customers and as colleagues.   Indeed, there are now some systems that just interact with other systems. But in the vast majority of cases, it’s still us who have to use them – so ease of use matters, training matters, availability matters and design matters.   

Indeed, if there is one thing I have learnt about introducing new IT, it is to work out how much training is needed, double it and then double it again.

So why do we sometimes still keep the IT people in one place, the process experts in another and the human factors folks somewhere else?   Well, that’s how organisations like to do it and our role is to challenge that.

Second – you can’t outsource accountability for joined up change.   Yes, of course, you can hire in the best technicians or analysts, web designers, you name it.   But when we talk about the intersection of IT, process and people, we are talking about the fundamentals of what makes a business function.  Yes, of course, take good advice and use the best people you can hire, but if there is a heart and soul to an organisation, this is where it resides.

You have to work out what you want to do and how you are going to get people to do it.

As we all know, the failure rates of IT projects that are reported are terrifying.  The amount of money wasted is large and the careers ruined many.   And yet we know the answer lies in joining things up effectively across boundaries and org-charts.

So – to end on a note of hope – the recent trends in the UK to use LEAN and AGILE techniques do exactly this.   They value people changing as the key to effective business change, and they hang process change – and then IT – off that. 

They involve people in their own processes and ask them what they think needs improving.  They put business and IT experts together in the same place and get them jointly to solve problems.   This has got to be a better way…

With a little help from my friends…

So here I am staring at the blank white box, one week later.

Help, I knew this would happen – my mind’s gone blank…..

Having determined to write a Blog about Business and IT matters, it’s got to be about that, at least fundamentally – not about Roman forts or some interesting theories about the start of the First World War.

Sally said: think about what happened last week – and start there. And immediately I was spoilt for choice.

I could write about my walk around the emerging C Terminal at T5 at Heathrow; I could write about a business breakfast with Ken Clarke and quite a few others, or I could write about our belated BA recognition event.

The purpose of this blog is absolutely not to write about British Airways itself but about IT and business – but I think the Event is more generally relevant.  Here’s why.

As is well known, life in an airline – or any business for that matter – in 2009 has been decidedly challenging.  When I stand up in our Theatre and address my department (which includes property, finance and IT services) it is invariably these days to promise blood, sweat and tears, budget reductions, severance programmes and plans for dealing with the pensions deficit.

That’s the way it is – we all understand this, after all we have been engaged –  like most businesses – in a fight for survival last year.

So my Comms colleague said, why don’t we just say “Thank you”? Why don’t we have a Recognition Event for 2009 and just for 60 minutes?

They worked tirelessly to set this up, secured Willie as keynote speaker, even ordered mince pies (quite something in these austere times) and produced a video clip of many of the great things we had all done in 2009.   All ready to go – and then the threat of the cabin crew strike before Christmas forced us to postpone, since everyone was involved in contingency planning.

That did not happen; so we re-fixed – great, we could just squeeze it in before Christmas.   And then the snow came, and  everyone who could get in was keeping the airline going or volunteering in the terminals or the call centres.   So we cancelled again.

Seemed like it had all been in vain.  But saying thank you is never in vain.  My colleagues convinced me that we should still go ahead with this – even though it was February – and 2009 seemed long ago.

So this Wednesday at 11am I found myself watching that video clip of all the great things people had done in 2009, and rather nervously marching up to the podium to recognise some very special projects and everyone who had worked on them.

The truth is that in all the rushing around and crisis management, you forget just how much has been achieved, and you forget that to deliver each one of those projects, services and deliveries, people had to come together.  Yes, it was probably the most challenging year in modern airline history (but who knows what next?) and yes, we survived and yes, we even made a small operating profit in the final quarter.   We all contributed to that in many ways, so it was good to take a moment to recognise that.

There were five projects we highlighted and people who worked on them got a certificate.  We chose them because they were great examples of everyone working together on the Airline’s Strategic Objectives across boundaries and departments.  Anyone in corporate life knows how difficult that can be sometimes.

For the record they were: Customer – helping to set up the innovative new London City (via Shannon) JFK route; Performance – the new revenue-generating initiatives on; Excellence – the new crew funding process and system for cabin crew down-route; Partnership – the completion of all the moves in the wonderful T5; and Colleagues – our work in setting up the Business Response Scheme, enabling many people across the airline to take voluntary unpaid leave and indeed volunteer to work without pay.

Speaking personally, it was quite scary standing up there and trying to find the right words to capture what they have achieved.  But I was ably supported with video and graphics which pictured as many colleagues as possible.

So what’s the point of all of saying all of this? It was great to recognise these achievements, which you can see all made a difference.  It was good to take the time to recognise everyone who had worked throughout the year to help us survive.  What we do at work is in so many ways in IT or properties or shared services is a team sport.  Team work. No great originality there, but it still is worth – even briefly – taking some time to look back and recognise this.

Oh, and by the way, at the end we had an adaption of “A little help from your friends” with specially adapted words.

Definitely the highlight of my week – sorry Ken!

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