by Tracey Caldwell

John Lewis IT head ditched critical data project to fight recession

Oct 11, 2009
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

When he is not training the rugby stars of the future in his home town of Twickenham in Middlesex, Mike English, MIS manager at John Lewis until just a couple of months ago, is equally at home tackling retail systems. His career has spanned the fast-moving food sector at Waitrose and its partner company, retail giant John Lewis. He describes his Twickenham base as ‘equitime’ between Waitrose’s Bracknell head-quarters and the John Lewis head office in Victoria, London, and he has had stints at both locations in the past. Recently, he’s been back at Victoria, knocking John Lewis’ supply-chain system into the best shape possible to ride out the economic storm. Although English has spent most of his career in the John Lewis family, he had some adjusting to do when he rejoined John Lewis in January 2008 after a long stint at Waitrose. “There is quite a culture change although we share the same system infrastructure,” says English of the relationship between the two. The two trading divisions face overlapping but distinct economic and competitive pressures. “Waitrose was almost a bit of a shock to the system to go there from John Lewis at that time [in 2002] because John Lewis had probably not faced quite the same stiff competition. It was much more cut-throat [in the food sector] and very easy to compare prices. There was less planning; it was much more spontaneous and reacting to what was happening.” The unusual partnership model at John Lewis means that its employees – known as partners and effectively co-owners in the stores – count themselves among the few UK workers who received a substantial bonus this year: 13 per cent of their pay. “One of the benefits of our co-ownership model is that whilst we can react quickly to market changes, we are also able to take the long-term view in every investment situation,” says English. “It doesn’t stop us from making difficult economic decisions. We have developed a democratic structure. We don’t necessarily always use that structure but the culture is that we tend to consult quite a bit where apprpriate and we certainly get held to account if we don’t. Sometimes it can mean that decisions take a little bit longer but it is worth it 10 times over in terms of the feeling of engagement and involvement.” English was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of his career when he joined John Lewis this time around. He was taken on to head up a huge data warehouse project but it quickly became apparent that the programme could not go ahead in its long-planned form as the contracting economy and the need to combine projects meant John Lewis management had thought again about the multi-million pound programme. “When economic conditions really changed, although [managers] are good about being long-sighted, there was a reluctance – and I very much understood that – to spend many millions of pounds. It would have been a huge investment for us as a company, and potentially a couple of years before you even started to see some benefit,” he says. As English found, there wasn’t the stomach to go for this data warehouse, and he suggested a new approach based on adopting a broader strategy, rather than taking on a one-off, big-bang project. “We need to have a strategy that encompasses everything but we don’t have to go away with 20 people for two to three years and do masses of analysis upfront. In some ways that can be nice but also there is a chance that the analysis that you do in the first half of 2008 is irrelevant by the end of 2010.” The new strategic approach identified an opportunity to combine projects, leading to significant savings but pushing English’s team to the limit. English had realised that a project replacing the internal accounting systems would be largely overtaken only a few months later by a Business Objects system upgrade and the new data warehousing system. It seemed sensible to join them up as the majority of the base development on the Unified Stock Accounting system had been completed by the time English joined. “It was risky as we had to get both projects done at the same time, but the user experience was better [and] we saved over 400 man days,” says English, who used technology from Ab Initio to deliver the system to tight timescales, despite it comprising up to two terabytes of data and several hundred reports. English describes stakeholder management as the greatest challenge in this environment. “If you have your project signed off [at], say, £5-10m, you might have to go back to the board and say ‘this how we are doing’, but basically you have a rolling thing. [A broader strategy] requires a lot more persuasion and influence along the way and a real need to keep demonstrating that we are delivering.”

Management buy-in English has worked hard to get management to engage with this approach so that he can deliver the projects in order of business priority but integrate them with other systems as he goes along. “For example,” he explains, “we are just starting to bring in sales transactions but we are not just plonking it on our database; we are integrating it so that if someone wants to cross-reference things they can. “We have been warming people up, doing various tactical pieces, partly because I did want to be helpful but also because I wanted these people to be on board. Maybe it will take a couple of months longer to deliver, but [that’s] nothing compared to the original cost.” Despite this attitude, he also recognises the long-term relationship value of a quick win for the IT leadership. “In terms of selling the strategy, we aim to do something tactical, something quick, to show we are the good guys, and then [senior management] are more prepared to trust you for a slightly longer piece,” he admits. One of those tactical pieces English carried out also engaged the marketing side. “They were already doing pretty well gathering competitor prices but we are now streamlining that, making it more efficient and making it easier for our buyers and our merchandisers to respond to competitors’ prices. “For example, last April, [electronics retailer] Currys had massive whole-page ads in the newspapers. They cut their prices overnight and compared them to John Lewis prices and said they were cheaper – and we cut our prices immediately. The piece we did was supporting that and about helping us to res-pond quickly. We can compare a lot of stuff twice a week or even more frequently.” One of English’s first moves on joining John Lewis last year was to reshape the team he inherited, creating a clearer technical lead and gaining a lead person at Ab Initio. English also saw some staff gains and losses more recently when, as part of its broader strategy, John Lewis split its development and operational IT at the end of March. “It is early days but that is also helping in terms of giving a focus to the development and operational areas, and allowing people to specialise a bit and become real experts in their field,” he says. English says he knew he had won management buy-in to the strategic approach when he was able to break down the traditional job silos in order to strengthen his team. “I needed some people from the systems leadership team who are not directly working on projects [and] who can oversee this from a technical point of view,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I need a bit of resource that isn’t part of the project’. We have a strict system of resource allocation and I said, ‘I just can’t deliver this strategy by people going on and off. I need permanent people’. I wasn’t sure whether they would actually give me those people or say, ‘Look we just can’t afford to do this’. But they are giving us those people – the systems director and the heads of systems. It really required quite a high level of engagement; it was a real test-case to determine whether you are really bought into.”

Demands of supply The supply chain is the next major area of focus for MIS with a system to analyse sales transactions and inform strategy that will include “major business decisions in terms of where we put shops and what to put in a shop in terms of food halls”. “The hard thing is that even when you have made the decision to put a place to eat in somewhere, you actually don’t know whether it was the right decision because you can’t analyse it – or you couldn’t. In a few months managers will be able to, and they are very excited about that.” MIS will also be supporting a transformation programme for John Lewis branches to become more efficient. “We are supporting the team that is doing that with reporting; things like stock checking… basic retailer stuff,” says English. Looking further into the future, the next big project, taking up as much as 15,000 man hours next year and the year after, will be aimed at consolidating John Lewis’ systems to enable the firm to work better as a multi-channel retailer and “to integrate things under the covers”. John Lewis also has plans to make its debut appearance overseas with a Dublin store planned for a few years’ time. “This is the first time we have gone abroad and the big decision is: do we make it multi-currency [to future proof for potential expansion] or [sterling and euro] dual-currency? We are also going to be looking at contact-centre handling. It may help to have sales transactions in there and cross-reference to call volumes – all very exciting.” English has just taken on a new challenge, leading a project to replace all till systems within the John Lewis network of stores. He’s busy but content at John Lewis as well as with the sideline in rugby schooling, as he has a son in an under-10s team and he has just received his Level 1 coaching qualification. “It is very enjoyable, very fulfilling,” he says of the oval ball game, as well as life in the John Lewis partnership.

Read the CIO UK interview with the IT and operations head of Harvey Nichols.

Mike English: CV

1991-1993: Lecturer in Economics at Solent University after studying Economics at Cambridge University

1993 -2001: Analyst and project manager for John Lewis systems and corporate systems

2002-2007: Systems manager at Waitrose, developing RF in-store handsets and business information systems for more than 180 stores

2008-present: MIS manager at John Lewis