To the right Alexander Palace, home to the first televisions broadcast, in front the gleaming spires to corporate modernity. This is the view from the 42nd floor of Canada Square in London's Canary Wharf. Level 42 is home to the JLAB, an incubation centre for technology start ups founded by John Lewis, the mutual retailer. Suitably the start ups are presented with a horizon of the UK’s position as a nation of innovation and investment.

IT Director for John Lewis Paul Coby invited CIO UK to his briefing to the mentors.

In May John Lewis chose five start up finalists that will all receive £12,500 in initial funding, access to the Canary Wharf centre and John Lewis APIs and mentoring from John Lewis business leaders and serial entrepreneurs as well as events. At this week’s JLAB meeting the five finalists were meeting their entrepreneur mentors.

The JLAB finalists include: in-store digital engagement provider Localz; wireless sound system for smart homes from Musaic ; 3D room planning tool from SpaceDesigned, after sales through Smart labels from Tap2Connect, and another engagement service from Viewsy.

"If you are a retailer it is historic to be 150 years-old, as we are, but we also find ourselves in the midst of a revolution and we aim to be here in 150 years time.

"There is more going on than just selling online. Everything is becoming connected and editing vast amounts of data and everything is becoming able to be tracked," Coby told the mentoring team.

"In five years time everything has changed and it has created umpteen customer journeys," he says of the challenge and opportunity a retailer in both the department store, supermarket markets spaces. "It is much more complicated."

As Coby has detailed through these pages many times, he and John Lewis are advocates, and successful at omni-channel retail. John Lewis is also famed for its customer service, relaxed but professional stores and according to Coby that changes the nature of online retail for an organisation like John Lewis.

“We have to provide the thing that people love about us – service and trust. So technology has to add to what we have in-store. I see a lot on the internet that doesn’t think about the customer.

“How do you project the emotional value onto social, mobile and online environments?” Coby asked the mentors to consider.

Need for change

“It hit me that we generate some good ideas in the business, but we have no monopoly. So we have to open ourselves up to ideas,” Coby said in response to a question from one of the mentors as to why John Lewis and its leadership team are investing in the JLAB.

“What I’m interested in is to open us up as no-one has the foggiest idea about what the shop of 2020 will look like,” he said.

The atmosphere of the event was relaxed, from a lack of suits and ties, to mentoring meetings being held with teams perched on cabinets or standing. Elsewhere teams huddles around desks with tablets and throw ideas around. There is the expected level of hanging garden chairs, whiteboards and glass covered with jottings and post-it notes.  As a serial mind map user I’m always both bemused and enthused that this method needs to inculcated into corporate culture.

As is right in any organisation undergoing rapid change, the culture is open to discussion, challenging questions and inquiry; and another mentor asks Coby what success looks like from the programme.

“It is something that works for the customers. If we can get all these ideas as mature companies that would work.”