Q&A: Paul Coby, IT Director John Lewis

We speak to Paul Coby, IT Director at John Lewis, about the technological advances in the retail industry.

Could you talk briefly about what your roles in retail, and the wider IT industry?

I'm IT director at John Lewis and retail is being revolutionised by technology. The whole business is changing; it's being turned inside out. We have about 25 per cent online revenue business and it's growing very fast, about 30 per cent versus last year.

The retail business was multi channel and is now going to what we call "omni-channel." This means that our customers want seamless service, so, for example, when you buy things in a shop, you probably research them online. We know that about six per cent of our customers do research online before shopping.

Similarly, when you buy online, you may have tested the product in a shop. So, you may have talked to one of our partners about the television you're buying or if you're thinking about buying a bed or a mattress, you may have taken advice in the shop and then you buy it online.

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Retail is being revolutionised by technology. The whole business is changing; it's being turned inside out. We have about 25 per cent online revenue business and it's growing very fast, about 30 per cent versus last year.

New mobile channels are certainly very important and of course social media is terribly important to us, so we launched a TV ad on YouTube before we put it on television. The world is changing.

I also chair the chief information officer (CIO) board of e-skills UK. What we are looking to do there is to increase the quality of engagement and training and teaching around technology.

We're very interested in showing and working to ensure that we have an IT workforce, a general workforce and a population that knows how to use technology and is excited by it.

There has certainly been a drive from the Government, but there is still a significant amount of citizens in the UK that still haven't been online - between eight and 10 million

Yes, but they've all got phones though, and increasingly they are using smartphones. I think we will see that sort of access changing as smartphones spread.

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The Race Online 2012 campaign is coming to an end but the numbers have only improved by about two million. What do we need do to really push towards 100 per cent coverage?

I think it's about what we call "omni channel," which is encouraging people to stop thinking about online as separate to the experience you have in the shops and the experience you have with your smartphone or indeed the way you access Facebook. So, if you think about the number of people on Facebook or social media, it is becoming much more pervasive.

I think that we're really seeing a new impulse to the way technology works, the way that apps are being used by consumers and increasingly in the corporate space. That's how technology is being consumed so the 'anytime, anyplace, anyhow' idea is really becoming clear.

What is also really important is teaching in schools and how we develop the IT interaction in schools. I think we all recognise there is a great paradox here. We've got the most online, interactive, connected, generation at school and university that we've ever had, and yet the attitudes to technology, particularly in the UK, are contradicting this. It's not a thing that people want to get into.

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Tritely, people think of the IT crowd as the archetype of the geek in the basement. We need to absolutely address that and one of the things that e-skills, John Lewis and my team are doing is looking at how we could develop a much better or much more appropriate use for the GCSE and A Levels.

I think that we're really seeing a new impulse to the way technology works, the way that apps are being used by consumers and increasingly in the corporate space.

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At e-skills we are working with one of the examination authorities, but strong support from the Government [is needed] to develop a curriculum that challenges students to ask questions like: "How do I build an app? How do I build a really successful computer game and how do I apply it to the real world to solve a real problem?" The goal is to actually make it interesting, really useful, and really challenging.

We've actually done this at degree level with a thing called the IT and managing business degree. We're doing this with 14 universities at the moment, which is absolutely about really using technology to solve real life problems. That's got quite a lot of business backing and I think it has got a great rate in terms of employability of graduates coming out of the program.

We really need to move where IT is seen in the economy and in society. If you're in Berkley or Bangalore or Beijing perhaps, IT is really important to the economy.

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