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


As I was saying…

If you were to look at the last posting on this blog, you would see that it was way back in the middle of last summer.

I have been “off the air” for some time, partly being busy with other things, but also because, at the start of November, while I pursuing my teenage son around the garden in the rain, I slipped over on the wooden bridge across our tiny stream.  There was a slow-motion moment as I hit the deck, what seemed like a pause, and then excruciating pain.  I had, it transpired, fractured my hip socket in two places.

In many ways, it served me right and my more forthright friends have said things like “About time you grew up…” and “How old are you?”  Fair comments – but a moment’s lack of caution can do a lot of damage.

To cut a long story short, I progressed through four hospitals, and had a quite complex operation to mend the fractures and save my hip from being replaced.  Suffice to say that – as everyone acknowledges – if you have something seriously wrong with you, you can do no better than the NHS.  And (fingers crossed) this has been true for me, as I encountered a world-class surgeon who specialises in fixing my kind of fracture of the acetabulum.

The big catch is that I must not put any weight on my right leg for 12 weeks, or indeed fly, whilst I am on crutches.  This is certainly a bit of an inconvenience but, compared with what many people have to go through, it is just that – an inconvenience.

The purpose of this blog is to say that I suspect this experience is very good for me in a number of ways.  I am realising at first hand just how difficult even the simple things in life become when you are not fully mobile.  (Fire doors with extra-strong springs become the bane of your life.)  And, how overnight you become very dependent on your friends and family.  It certainly reminds you to say please and thank you!

I have still some five weeks to go before – all being well – I can escape the crutches.  The experience has helped me to appreciate, just a little, how challenging it must be to cope with a disability.  It has made me recognize that fate and/or carelessness can turn your life upside down; and it has made me grateful for that peculiarly British institution, the NHS, and even more grateful for the kindness and consideration of family, friends and colleagues.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get the blog going again – so here goes.  I have at least one post that will go live tomorrow at 9am.  It’s about New Year IT predictions…



I was lucky enough recently to award prizes to the Computer Clubs for Girls (CC4G) which is run by some of our female John Lewis Partners in St Vincent’s R C Primary School next to Westminster Cathedral in London.

CC4G is a programme run by e-skillsUK to help address the gender imbalance in Technology which starts with the shocking lack of girls gaining ICT qualifications in schools – only 9% of A Level students are girls – and only 15% carrying on to study Computer Science at university.

CC4G is a club designed for girls.  It shows the exciting ways that technology is used in music, sport and fashion through interactive and fun games and challenges.

It was inspiring to meet the class of 10 and 11 year olds who had done projects on building a website.  The subjects included fashion and nail-art!  They were all well-designed, brightly coloured and fun.  Even more impressive, each of the girls stood up and talked about their designs and why they had enjoyed building their sites.  Some even said why they were now interested in taking up IT!


How CC4G works is that a group – in this case IT Partners from the John Lewis IT Directorate – or parents decide to support a “computer club” for school girls, usually aged 10 to 12.  They need to do the security checks to work in a school, of course.  They can then download materials from the CC4G website which enable them to run club sessions on fun topics that girls report that they enjoy.

When St Josephs came in for the prize-giving our team showed them how we are piloting RFID tags in clothes in our shops.  Normally the Club takes place over lunch time in the school.

Great fun was had by all!


Since 2005, when eskillsUK launched the programme, more than 135,000 girls in over 3,800 schools have experienced CC4G.  84% of girls involved in CC4G state they are more likely to consider further education or a career in technology as a result of CC4G.  98% of teachers who run the clubs say that the girls’ IT confidence levels have improved.

If anyone is interested in running a CC4G, then you can see the materials at   There is 2-week free trial and then a licence costs £350, which hopefully companies will feel is well worth while part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) outreach.

We received the school’s permission to take and display these pictures.

Doctor, Doctor, please help – I have too many blogs…

As a fan of all that is “social media”, I tend to try new things and to start blogs – or at least promise to start them.

In my personal (that is, non-work) life, I have this blog on WordPress plus a Twitter feed, both of which repeat onto my Facebook page.  (I also have a LinkedIn page as many of us do these days – is that work or personal, though?)

I am a great fan of the daily photo site Blipfoto and have just taken a look at Pinterest and Tumblr too, although I have not succumbed to any of those yet.

At work, when I became IT Director at John Lewis, I also started a closed weekly blog for all IT Partners in JL.  (Well, it’s nearly weekly…)

And, in recent weeks, I have started two new social media sites.  The first was in John Lewis to support the roll-out around all our shops of our new “Retail Revolution” Strategy.  We put this site together in less than a month on Googlesites, with some great help from Google. It is intended to be fun and engaging, and has – in my view – been wonderfully successful so far, with many Partners around the country logging on to get more information in the form of the presentations and videos that support the Strategy.  They have also become involved in discussion threads.  We have had votes on which question to “Ask Directors” where several of my colleagues and myself have gone online interactively to answer questions.  We have also held a vote on which IT investments Partners would like to see made in the next year.

The other site, which went live today – and made me think about this topic – is another closed site: it is a Portal for the SITA Council.  This is built around WordPress and is the forum for members of the SITA Council who represent over 30 airlines from around the World.  This site has the ability to privately circulate papers and briefings as well as to start discussion topics.

Social media in both of these examples has the ability to link together dispersed business communities – in SITA’s case globally dispersed – more effectively than conventional emails, circulation of papers and relatively infrequent meetings.

Now, I don’t claim any originality for any of the above.  There are lots of examples like this that you will be aware of.  However, what has struck me is the number of different social media interactions I now have – now not just in the personal space like Facebook and Twitter, but now in the business space as well.

Technology is breaking down barriers both of geography and time: we are indeed connected any time and anywhere.  It is also breaking down the barriers between personal and work in terms of interaction.  But how many social media entries can you – and should you – make?

Fun and Fear in IT in 2012

I have noticed two strongly opposing tendencies in IT at the moment.

At one extreme are those of us who find the new world of social media – the presence of 794 million people on Facebook, probably 500 million Twitter, and the fact that we can be connected any time and anywhere – exhilarating and liberating.

I can now do many things now that I dreamed of but never thought would be possible:

  • shuffle my music randomly or around themes (I used to struggle with CD changers!)
  • connect with other folk around the world who are interested in late Roman shield patterns or obscure locomotives of the New South Wales Government Railway
  • publish my thoughts on IT and on Roman history as real books
  • post my photos of “traces of past empires” on a site for anyone interested to see (rather than keep prints in shoe boxes!)
  • travel the World and still keep in touch with business
  • talk to relatives in Australia for free on Skype (think of the cost before!).

I love all of this and find it enriches my life.

At the same time, though, as an IT Director I am – like all CIOs – simply terrified by the way everything I love, listed  above, also breaks down the barriers and controls that protect our own personal and corporate data.

The flip side of the coin of openness is personality and financial theft.  It is Facebook sites left open, credit card numbers lost, intellectual property raided, and personal and corporate reputations damaged.

We have all heard the scary statistics – most of them unverifiable – about how people share information and devices, and about how companies are hacked without even knowing it.

So what do we conclude?

Well, the world has changed.  This is not about a change that might happen.  It has CHANGED.

The Internet IS integral to the lives of the next generation (and many of is in the current one).  Online communications ARE now rivalling face-to-face contact in many ways.  Attitudes to information, mobile devices and social media HAVE changed both our personal and our working lives irrevocably.

We live in a world cracked open by technology.  To enjoy its advantages and avoid its pitfalls, we have to find new ways to communicate and new rules to live by – whether in business or in our personal lives.

Speech to the Chemistry Club Part 4: The Three Dragons we have to Slay

You may have read some of my previous posts based on my speech to the Chemistry Club, so let’s go back now to the 3 Dragons we have to slay.


St George And The Dragon 1456

Here comes Dragon Number 1, breathing fire.  His name is IGNORANCE and his mantra is “IT does not really matter”.

If you accept that technology is fundamental to the competitive success and cost-base of almost all industries in the UK. And that is is also fundamental to how the public sector interacts with us all as citizens and meets its cost and efficiency challenges. Then why is IT something of a ‘second class citizen’ in the UK?

Every IT conference I go to, someone asks “Why aren’t CIOs on the Board?”  Technology is always somewhere on the Government’s policy agenda – but not at the top.  It sometimes seems to me that the “T” in STEM (i.e. “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths”) is silent.

I was appalled to be given a lecture by an industrial psychologist at a recent business event on how – as a member of the IT profession – “I must get out more and talk to the business”.

That approach made it sound as if I was wearing sandals, flares and a bad haircut. I loved the “IT Crowd” as a show on Channel 4 – but I do recognise that it played (very successfully) on the stereotype of the techie geek.

I just don’t think this kind of conversation about technology happens in Boston, Berkeley, Bangalore or Beijing. As we know, in India and in San Francisco, the heroes are the technology entrepreneurs who have literally transformed their societies, bringing jobs and prosperity to many people.

Two of the founders of the Indian IT industry – who I am pleased and proud to know slightly – are, for instance, engaged in setting up a social security system in the Indian countryside and spreading low-cost mobile banking to farmers.

It should be as unacceptable for a CEO, a Permanent Secretary or a Government Minister to say they do not understand technology as it would be for them to say they can’t read a balance sheet!


The Second fire-breathing Dragon’s name is INCAPACITY, particularly in the quality and effectiveness of IT Training and Education.

We are simply not, in the UK, turning out the number of technology graduates and apprentices that we need:

  • employment in the IT industry is growing nearly 5 times faster than the UK average,
  • 1-in-20 members of the UK work-force is now employed in IT, and
  • at e-skills UK we calculate that over 110,000 new IT professionals are needed each year.

BUT look at the numbers for graduates:

  • only 17% of the intake into the IT industry comes directly from education,
  • the proportion of IT professionals under the age of 30 has fallen from 1-in-3 to under 1-in-5,
  • the number of applicants to computing courses in the UK halved between 2001 and 2007 – down from 31,000 to 15,000, (It has now gone up to 17,000, but is still far too low at 1/2 of what it was and 1/3rd of what it needs to be),
  • The proportion of IT graduates unemployed 6 months after graduation is increasing to 14% – double the average, and
  • more disturbingly, of those employed only 45% – less than half – are actually in IT jobs.

The school numbers are equally worrying:

  • students taking technology A Levels have fallen by 60(yes, six-zero)% since 2003,
  • grades for these subjects are significantly lower than the average, and
  • at GCSE level, the number taking IT has fallen by 57% since 2005.

The problem is not just about overall numbers – the male/female imbalance is catastrophic and shameful. Only 15% of computing degree applicants and 9% of computing A Level students are female.

This sounds like a TECH SKILLS SUPPLY CRISIS to me.

What we need is VERY SIMPLE – we need an educational system that does 3 things:

First – we must recognise the importance of IT in nearly every industry, whether its retail or airlines, media or manufacturing, public or private sector.

Second – we need courses – at GCSE, at A level and at Degree level – that produce students who are genuinely inspired and excited about how you can USE IT to really make a difference in their business or department or charity.

Third – we need to attract talented individuals from the OLD industries into the IT industry of the future.


And, finally, the Third Dragon whose name is INCONSISTENCY: we need a strong voice for IT in the UK.

We have excellent organisations that speak for the IT industry in the UK: BCS, Intellect, e-skillsUK, universities and colleges of further education.  We have excellent allies and supporters in the political and media worlds.

In the UK, we all need to talk confidently and loudly about the importance of Technology  and make our case that excellence in IT and e-skills are today’s successes that will be essential to our future performance in the connected globalised highly competitive World.

So in conclusion I believe that:

  • the UK’s future prosperity and competitiveness depends on us securing a greater share of the World’s high-value-added work,
  • the UK should become a generator of – and magnet for – digital talent and high-value technology-enabled businesses, and
  • we must, in the UK, strive to be a world leader in the development of IT-enabled business solutions.

And, in my view, to do all this we need to slay the 3 Dragons of IGNORANCE, INCAPACITY and INCONSISTENCY.

We will, in my view, in this way generate Prosperity, Growth and Jobs:

  • for IT experts in the UK
  • in other industries throughout the economy, and
  • for people transferring from declining sectors and industries.
Do you recognise these Dragons? And how would you go about slaying them?

How Technology will change the World in 2012

I make no claims for originality in these predictions. A characteristic of our connected social media world is that we take our ideas from everyone else – and these are no exception…

  • With “the integration of everything”, apps will work on smartphones, computers and TVs everywhere. You’ll access your email, social media and applications on any device anywhere.
  • The Cloud will turn computing into a utility (at last – after many years of predictions). This will open massive expandable computing power on demand.
  • The Cloud will be not just for businesses but individual consumers. Look at how Facebook – operating in the Cloud – is conquering the world. And Apple’s personal assistant app, Siri – Steve Jobs’ final initiative – will open an infinity of new apps which will learn what you want and, in time, even how you think….
  • Kindle and iPad were the big commercial volume successes of 2011, meaning that Amazon and Apple will be major platforms for – and could also become major publishers for – what we used to call books, films, magazines and newspapers.
  • The TV will be the revolutionary technology device of 2012, with intelligence provided by connectivity from pads and smartphones, no longer presenting just TV channels but everything that is out there on the net and becoming a key element of social media.
  • Social media will continue to grow and will continue to revolutionise  the way we shop, how people remove tyrants, spread our new ideas, connect with friends, family and fellow enthusiasts globally – in short, everything…
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