By Gloria Lombardi

With sharing always at the core of the organisation, the John Lewis division of the Partnership recently involved their Partners in a competition-format project aimed at releasing technlogy-based creative thinking across the company to improve customer satisfaction on digital channels.

I caught up with Stakeholder Communications Manager at John Lewis, Chris Hipwell (pictured), who shared his insights on their successful internal project.

Gloria Lombardi: Tell us more about Pitch and what it entails.

Chris Hipwell: ‘Pitch’ stands for Partner Innovation Technology Challenge – and the idea was to get ordinary employees (we call them ‘Partners’ as it’s an employee-owned company) from around John Lewis, including those serving customers in branches, to offer technology-related ideas to help deliver better customer service online and in the omni channel world.

The all round idea of Pitch was to look for innovative ideas and stimulate thinking throughout the company. We have always had a tradition of innovation in John Lewis and we wanted to continue that tradition. So we asked all the employees how they would help replicate our great reputation for customer service but in the digital world.

With Pitch we tried to encourage innovation elsewhere other than just on the shop floor. That is why we invited our employees, especially the ones who are out there and really know what our customers want, to help us with their technology related ideas. This was the point behind the initiative. We put it in a competition format launched through our website. We asked Partners to present their ideas and explain why they thought it might be successful and how they might bring it to market. Then we would shortlist the entry and organise a final event to actually judge the winner.

GL: Why did you implement the programme?

CH: Technology innovation is a major source of strategic differentiation for retailers. John Lewis has a successful history of product and format innovation, and has been an important innovator in terms of technology in the past. We believed that by tapping into our Partner expertise we had a rich seam of innovative thinking that could bring value to our customers, Partners and to the performance of our business.

GL: Where did the idea come from?

CH: Following on from a successful technology innovation event in November 2012, where we invited external suppliers to pitch ideas against real business challenges, we decided to launch a technology innovation challenge for all John Lewis Partners. The purpose of the challenge was two-fold: first, to help address an important business issue. Second, to stimulate a culture of innovative thinking.

The idea was to help recreate Partner knowledge and services, which we are famous for in-store, in our digital channels either generally or to support a specific assortment or service.

GL: What was the deadline for employees to submit their ideas? What did the submission process consist of?

CH: In terms of time, employees had one month, from the opening date which was on 14th January 2013 until the closing date of the 15th February 2013.

Submission of their ideas was via an online submission portal on the IT site on our Retail Revolution Google site or via email to the Innovation Manager in IT. Employees were asked to explain their idea(s) answering 5 mandatory questions to enable everyone who viewed their idea to understand what it was and what it was about – so they were asked to keep it simple and clear.

Once they had submitted their idea, Partners were able to vote for the idea they either liked or disliked using buttons on each idea page. A Leader Board displayed all the ideas, ranking them in order of popularity.

GL: What was the judging process like?

CH: The judges were selected from a cross-section of the business community with representation from people such as IT User Group, buyers from the chosen challenge area and Store Partners who work in the challenge area.

A Each idea was reviewed against a criteria covering things such as: “Is there a valid business need?”; “Do we have the technology already to capitalise on?”; “Is it new and different and does it meet the needs of both the Partner and Customer while delivering a great experience?”

The first stage was for all Partners to have a democratic vote on the submitted idea during the open submission period after which all ideas were doubled checked by an internal judging panel for final selection. This was to ensure that no idea was ignored. And should an idea submitted already be on the planned works for the business we did let everyone know where it was in the cycle, who owned it.

GL: What happened once an idea was shortlisted?

CH: Finalists were asked to develop a presentation explaining their Pitch and if relevant to include a proof of concept. The presentation had to cover Customer benefits, Partner benefits, the value added to John Lewis and anything they felt we needed to know about the idea.

On 20th March, we then had a Dragons Den format event organised at the Google head office on Buckingham Palace Road where the finalist pitched their idea(s) to a panel, talking for 15 minutes followed by a 5 min Q&A session. At the end of the day, the winner was voted and selected.

GL: Who won the Pitch competition? What did they win?

CH: The winner was a Partner from Cambridge branch working in the fashion department. She had an idea for fashion which had definitely the potential to help our customers understand how to shop better our fashion items.

The prize for the winning idea was the “John Lewis Partner Innovation Technology Challenge Award”. John Lewis IT will work with the winning person to develop the idea further and if appropriate will seek funding for a proof of concept.

GL: How did employees respond to the initiative?

CH: We were extremely pleased to see how employees responded positively to the initiative. We had 125 ideas submitted in only 4 weeks of the competition. In particular, there was a largely young participation, especially among 30 year old employees, this was the average.

People were very engaged and very keen on knowing how the initiative was going. It was really good to see such passionate ideas from people who usually did not see doing this as part of their role. It was a very revealing, a very motivating exercise. They clearly enjoyed this strategic thinking; they called it “Truly inspiring!” and “Very motivating!”. Other feedback included: “It’s been a good event, a good way for everybody to get their ideas across, really inspirational”; “I think it’s great to see the passion that the Partners had, the ideas they’ve got, thinking really differently, and thinking about omnichannel.”

GL: What are some major takeaways from the Pitch initiative and where do you go from here?

CH: We know that there are very good ideas also in the other entries that were not selected as the finalists. We are now testing those ideas which are in an approval concept stage and if found to be helpful to our customers they will go into implementation. This internal event was so successful to us that we are now thinking of implementing it on an annual basis. The truth is that it was a very good experience for us to understand what taps into the customer experience from the shop floor. They are the people who can see what the customers are looking for.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate