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The other side of m-retailing: mobile helps the business from within at John Lewis

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While much attention is focussed on how mobile can be used by retailers to work with consumers and improve the retail experience, mobile also has another role to play: within the retail corporation, making staff right across the organisation from senior managers to HR to the cleaners work better and smarter.

One of the chief advocates of this is leading UK network operator O2, which has devoted a lot of time to working with leading retailers to put mobile not only at the heart of the multichannel retail experience, but also at the core of corporate comms.

And nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than at John Lewis Partnership (JPL), where the network operator, already a comms provider to the company, came to its rescue when managers bemoaned the fact that, while their business ran on email, they couldn’t get email on their frequent trips outside the office.

The John Lewis Partnership (JLP) is the UK’s largest employee-owned business, operating 29 John Lewis shops and 225 Waitrose supermarkets in the UK, along with a successful online venture, and Greenbee, a direct services company. Its staff, known as partners, total 70,000 and the company turnsovers more than £7.4billion a year.

In 2003, JLP’s IT department was under strong pressure from partners to provide mobile email. Like all businesses, JLP was increasingly dependent on email to keep projects moving and communications channels open. But the moment Partners set foot out of the office they were cut off from email. As a result, several users began asking the IT department if they could connect their own personal devices to JLP’s email server. In response,, the IT department organised a trial of PDAs that used pull email technology.

“The test enabled JLP to define more clearly the features it wanted in a future mobile email solution”, says Steve Parker, Technical Architect at JLP. The first criterion was total compatibility with JLP’s IBM Lotus Notes environment. Second, Parker wanted the IT department to support just one corporate-standard group of devices. Third, JLP needed a solution with strong security to ensure sensitive data didn’t fall into the wrong hands.

JLP contacted its mobile operator, O2, to survey the solutions available on the market, and selected BlackBerry, which comprised of BlackBerry Enterprise Server for IBM Lotus Domino and BlackBerry smartphones.

After a successful trial, BlackBerry smartphones were rolled out to senior managers, where they quickly became an indispensible tool. They were then provided to merchandisers, buyers, divisional managers, Waitrose regional operational managers and John Lewis store leadership teams.

Today that initial 25 person trial now covers more than 2500 partners using BlackBerry smartphones for mobile access to email, calendar and contacts.

In addition, the BlackBerry solution enables users to access corporate data. One way is by mobilising Lotus Domino databases. “Many teams maintain databases and BlackBerry users can consult them via the BlackBerry Browser,” explains Ian Potter, Project Services Systems Manager at JLP. The other way is by using BlackBerry Browser to access intranet pages. “We use web-based online reporting in the Corporate division,” says Parker. “Thanks to the encrypted connection with BlackBerry Enterprise Server, BlackBerry users can securely access these reports while on the move.”

According to Potter and Parker, the advantages of the BlackBerry solution for JLP can be divided down into two main categories. The first is better communications for users. “If we didn’t have a BlackBerry solution, a number of our operations would suffer,” says Potter. “In any kind of project-oriented business such as ours, collaboration is the key – and BlackBerry provides shorter decision cycles, keeps projects moving and delivers immediate communications,” comments Parker.

The second tranche of benefits can be found behind the scenes. According to Potter: “The security is excellent, as is the integration with IBM Lotus Notes. We keep an eye on the market, and at the moment the other mobile communication solutions available don’t have the same enterprise strength as BlackBerry.” Parker adds that the level of security provided by the BlackBerry solution gives JLP “greater reassurance as to the kinds of communications and information we allow to go out to mobile users. The fact that the connection is encrypted and the devices can be wiped remotely is crucial.”

JLP plans to upgrade to BlackBerry Enterprise Server v5 later this year in order to take advantage of the built-in high availability meaning that planned or unexpected downtime can be avoided. “The BlackBerry solution is already very reliable. As a result it has become such an important operational system that we want to be able to take availability to the next level” says Parker.

Finally, JLP considers the BlackBerry solution to be highly cost effective. “Half an hour a week of time savings is sufficient to pay for the device and the subscription,” he says. The next step is to identify applications that could allow JLP to provide mobile users with access to other corporate systems. “Getting even more value out of our investment in the BlackBerry solution is a high priority at JLP,” says Parker.

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