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John Lewis In-Sources E-commerce to Win Back Control

5 October 2018
Faced with growing competition from Amazon, John Lewis Partnership, the leading UK retailer is moving its key software development and quality functions in-house. Alex Wotton, the firm's Head of Testing, who is speaking at the QA E-Commerce Forum in London on October 17th, is leading the change.

Aside from increased competition online, a desire to shift to Agile software development at John Lewis was also behind the decision two years ago to being key E-commerce software in-house, and out of the hands of third party vendors, according to Wotton.

And a key enabler of the shift has been John Lewis's adoption of containerisation for app development, based on Docker software and the Kubernetes orchestration tool to automate deployment. According to Wotton, adoption of these tools has made software development and quality assurance more intuitive for his team, and as a consequence the end-products are more accessible and easy-to-use for stakeholders across the E-commerce business.

As a result of the shift, the contract with company’s key third-party systems integrator has also been renegotiated. “Leveraging the relationship for us was all about making sure that we were getting good-value traditional testing offshore,” Wotton said. “In changing this relationship, we went through a series of stages, starting with getting the right contract in place for the changing dynamics of how we test.”

Wotton has been with John Lewis for five years, having started out as a Senior Manager of Test Delivery for Partnership Services IT, responsible for creating a testing function for the organisation. Since 2014, he has headed up John Lewis Partnership’s Testing and Environments practice and driving wholesale change. He explained: “Originally, we were outsourcing large programmes of work, which we called our super-tankers and which needed big, Waterfall-type testing practices. Two years ago, we reached the recognition that we needed to deliver faster.”

There's a clear commercial imperative at play. John Lewis's high street stores are under attack from a surge in online shopping. The same is true for its Waitrose supermarket chain. Their traditional customers are increasingly happy to use Amazon and other online vendors. In September, the John Lewis reported its half-year profits were down 99%. The response had already been anticipated.

The plan is to fight back with effective and convenient digital services. The latest example of this push is Waitrose’s announcement this week that it is trialing in-home delivery partnership with Yale smart locks. Shoppers taking part in the trial will be able to let drivers deliver groceries directly to their kitchen. This is done by generating a temporary access code for a shopper’s smart lock, which is then sent to Waitrose via a secure app. The trial is a clear response to Amazon Key, a similar smart lock initiative launched by the online retailer last year.

To keep John Lewis & Partners customer needs in focus, a key concern has been to open up communication lines between IT Delivery functions, John Lewis' customers and stakeholders, Wotton said.

“Our IT Delivery transformation has been driven by business imperatives, including the threat of online retailers taking away business and the decline of the high street. We know we need to be able to deliver value more quickly, and be able to pivot and change directions. Knowing that we were best placed to drive our own agile transformation, we turned to our Partners.”

A key step towards speeding up delivery has been figuring out which projects needed to be outsourced and which needed to be brought in-house, which is why the company’s testing and environments practice team made distinction between differentiated and non-differentiated work.

A key step towards speeding up delivery has been figuring out which projects and outcomes will continue to be outsourced and which needed to be brought in-house, which is why the technology strategy guides the distinction between differentiating and non-differentiating solutions.

“Differentiating solutions directly enable business growth through a unique proposition or operational advantage.” Wotton said. “The majority of this work pertains to customer and Partner functions and features.”

External providers will continue to support the delivery teams in their areas of specialism.

“40% of our business is now online and we want to get our partners actively involved in this work. This is partly to improve business outcomes, but also because we want to give our partners better, more fulfilling jobs,” said Wotton. [John Lewis refers to employees as partners, partly because they own stakes, via a trust, in the business.] The rationale was that those partners working on the company's E-commerce platform will understand the customer's journey and needs much better than a third party would.

The work is not finished yet. “When we complete the transition, we’re hoping that we will be left with a 60/40 or 50/50 split between differentiated and non-differentiated work,” said Wotton. For the transition to fully succeed, however, he quickly found out that the company would need to invest in upskilling its workers.

“We’re saying to all of our partners that they’ve got to be much more technically adept. One of the things we’re making everybody do is that we’re putting everybody on a build camp,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that everybody needs to be able to write production-ready code in the first year of their transformation. However, we’re saying that business stakeholders need to understand the conversations that they’re having with developers and infrastructure people.”

“The whole journey for us has been focused on what skills we need to have as an organisation, how do we get our partners to buy into those skills and putting in place a plan to help our partners upskill. Now, we’re six months into the execution stage and we are putting our partners through this training plan we’ve developed.”

The promise of upskilling has meant that employees with a thorough understanding of business needs are now taking an active part in development and QA. Beyond improving the end result, this change has made more members of the team feel involved in the business’ technological transformation, and motivated to continue to learn.

Wotton says that the company is still in the process of defining measurements for the outcome of this project. The ultimate testament to its success, however, will be the shoppers’ reaction to John Lewis’ e-commerce and digital services.

Wotton and Sandra Christie, John Lewis' Practice Head of Analysis for IT, will discuss the retailer's digital transformation and changing culture in a panel at the QA E-Commerce Forum in London, on October 3. For more information and to register, click here.

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