A Better Way of Doing Business? Lessons from the John Lewis Partnership

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Open University Business School


Currently, and most especially since the economic crisis of 2008 began to bite, commentators, politicians and policy makers of all kinds of persuasion have advocated 'The John Lewis Model' as a leading alternative solution to the business practices in the wider economy which are thought to have contributed to the difficulties now encountered. Advocacy of the model is also sometimes based on the idea that such an alternative approach could be a constructive way to cope with the recession irrespective of its original cause. The Cabinet Office has sponsored a Pathfinder Mutual's initiative which is championing the idea of co-ownership - most notably in the public sector including the NHS. In January 2012, the Deputy Prime Minister explicitly advocated the John Lewis model for firms throughout the wider economy. Partly as a result of this attention, and partly because of its commercial success when other retailers are struggling, the John Lewis Partnership finds itself consulted by organizations large and small seeking insight into the potential for transferability of its methods. In such a climate, there is a danger of over-selling the model. In collaboration with the Chairman and the Board, we have been asked to help analyse the component elements of the JLP approach to business and to employment and to help assess the potential and the conditions for replicability in other organizations. As our User Referee organizations might indicate, there are prima facie reasons to believe that some organizations, under the right conditions, can borrow at least some characteristic features of the model.

In tune with the Knowledge Exchange Scheme purposes, the main impact will be to raise awareness and deepen understanding of the much-discussed JLP model with particular focus upon its potential for wider adoption and the conditions governing such adoption.

The aims and objectives of this Knowledge Exchange Proposal are to: describe, clarify and evaluate the operational reality of the JLP model and to make this knowledge available for discussion and scrutiny both internally and externally; seek to establish the importance of the various constituent components of the approach and the nature and extent of the mutual interplay between them; clarify the link between the model - in part or whole - and performance; clarify the potential for the wider adoption of the model and the conditions governing its successful transfer; and to hold a series of workshops with internal and external audiences to examine the workings and the implications of the model and its practice.

The John Lewis Partnership approach appears to be familiar (the ownership structures, the formal processes of consultation and representation). But, the practical workings, both at strategic and operational levels, are not well understood. In a dynamic and fast-moving retail environment, managers in the Partnership are faced with numerous challenges which test their abilities to use and work with the model. It is through a detailed analysis and an informed discussion about how such dilemmas are handled in practice, that most value will be found both internally and externally.

Peer-reviewed publications arising from this grant will be registered on the Open University's open access institutional repository - Open Research Online (ORO) at http://oro.open.ac.uk. ORO is now one of the largest repositories in the UK. The site receives an average of 40,000 visitors per month from over 200 different countries and has received over 1.6 million visitors since 2006. It enables access to research outputs via common search engines including Google, by using the OAI (Open Archives Initiative) Protocol for Metadata Harvesting.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit? The output of this project will be of direct use and value to a number of different bodies interested in the nature and relevance of the JLP model. Each will require a slightly different strategy to ensure the impact of the research. We will devise an impact strategy for each group of users.

The most immediate group of users will be in the John Lewis Partnership (JLP) itself. This group - potentially extending across the 75,000 JLP employees - has, for this project, the lead interface of the directors and JLP senior managers with whom we are working in order to clarify the model. Many in this senior group play a key role in informing the public debate about the nature and relevance of the JLP model. This KE project has impact value in helping this influential group refine and clarify their accounts of the model. Hence, the research will be used by these managers for both their internal and external work. The Chairman has made clear his commitment to the project and has notified his colleagues it will contribute to internal discussions about the model and the approach to business strategic choices. We have agreed with him that we will present interim conclusions of our work to groups of senior JLP managers and attend workshops to discuss these materials. We will also produce articles on the research for the JLP in-house magazine, the Gazette, and offer presentations to the Chairman's Conference - an annual meeting of senior managers of JLP - and to the induction and other training/development events. We have agreed with the Managing Director of John Lewis to run a seminar on the research findings for the John Lewis Board.

The research report will also have a wider impact through discussions between JLP senior managers and a range of outside bodies interested in the JLP model. The research report will be used by JLP managers in the various bodies of which they are members, and furthermore we will offer to present our conclusions to these bodies.

These bodies constitute a second category of user. They include all those institutions established to research, explore, and discuss, alternative organizational models, especially those specifically charged with addressing mutuals and cooperatives or other forms of employee ownership/participation. We will engage with these bodies and present the results of our investigations in meetings with them. They include, for example, the Mutual Pathfinders - an initiative launched by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office which includes the John Lewis Partnership as one of the main mentors to the raft of organizations participating in this programme. One such is the Swindon Intermediate Care Centre - a service jointly commissioned by NHS Swindon and Swindon Borough Council. This is intended to lead the way for other public sector employees who want to take ownership of the services they provide. John Lewis Partnership is sharing its experience of employee ownership with this pathfinder to help it develop its plan to become a mutual. Our Knowledge Exchange project should help to deepen the interchange of ideas in this and similar cases.

How will the impacts be felt? As noted above, the contribution of our work in this project is to provide independent and thorough assessment of the nature and the practical workings of the John Lewis approach. The intention therefore is to make a contribution - and thus achieve an impact - through dialogue with those individuals and organizations interested in exploring the realities and the possibilities of the model in other contexts.
Description The research has helped to clarify the many different forms which 'mutuality' can take. Different organizations choose to emphasize different attributes. Additionally, the research contributed to knowledge and understanding by clarifying the issues which organizations seeking a mutual or co-owned form need to resolve.
Exploitation Route The findings could be taken forward by further clarifying how mutuals in different sectors (private sector, social enterprise, housing, health etc) may find that there are distinct challenges which they need to prioritise. So, for example, the small community health mutuals which spun-off from the NHS proper face challenges around a limited customer-base and reliance on one or two major contracting clients. Or, take a different example, mutuals with both employee members and consumer members face distinct challenges.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Retail