“Over the last four years, we’ve had an opportunity to meet and work with some of the most exciting retail startups from around the world,” says John Vary, innovation manager at the John Lewis Partnership. “Getting an early glimpse of emerging technology is immensely useful, but the real benefit for us is in having our staff working closely alongside startups.”
To the casual observer, the John Lewis Partnership is a very traditional UK retailer. Reassuringly upmarket, its public face is one of well-appointed department stores and supermarkets, located on prestige sites across the UK. Established in 1864, the department store chain in particular is something of a British institution.
But it's an institution that is determined to stay ahead of the game in a rapidly changing retail landscape where ability to innovate is the key to ongoing survival. To that end, John Lewis has, for the past four years, been running an Innovation Lab, (JLAB) in which groups of startups are invited to develop solutions to improve the store group's customer experience. The carrot for the companies taking part is the opportunity to develop a relationship with John Lewis managers and possibly – just possibly – go on to become a partner or supplier.
And John Lewis is not, by any means, the only major business making a determined and structured effort to tap into the technologies and business models emerging from the tech startup scene in the UK and around the world. There are a range of strategies in play, including innovation labs and accelerators (more or less the same thing), hackathons and corporate venturing.
The common factor is that these initiatives allow corporate businesses to get up close and personal with third parties who are not only bringing fresh ideas to the table, but who can also – typically - get prototypes and trials up and running in weeks, rather than months or years.
Arguably this close contact represents something more than a simple transaction in which an agile minnow sells a solution to a slower moving corporate. In theory at least, major businesses have an opportunity learn from startup culture.
A corporate gateway to speed and innovation
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