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Lester Berry, head of analytics and data science, John Lewis Partnership

Lester Berry, head of analytics and data science, John Lewis Partnership

How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?

 

Data and analytics are a key part of the new Partnership strategy, as an appreciation of the profession’s benefit and further potential continue to grow. Having a deep understanding of our customers and what we need to do differently for them is a big focus, although I expect analytics to be a part of delivering most elements of the new strategy over the next couple of years.

 

Purpose is an important word at the Partnership. We do not have the normal shareholder structure so we can make different choices. To be able to afford some of those choices though, as retail becomes more and more competitive, we need to become more efficient. Advanced analytical techniques will help in many areas here too, eg, forecasting, operations and resource planning, so that we can invest more money in our customers.

 

2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?

 

I hope 2021 is a lot better! The main impact on the planned activity was that several projects were delayed and, instead, we worked on many projects that couldn’t have been anticipated.

 

We have a clear roadmap for data and analytics which hasn’t suddenly become wrong, but the pace that we could invest and progress at did slow down. This was understandable for two reasons. Firstly, we had no idea in the spring what the impact of Covid-19 was going to be (or how long it would last), so planned investment was very carefully reconsidered. Secondly, many stakeholders suddenly had completely different issues to face and priorities changed. Who would have guessed at the beginning of the year many of the John Lewis shops would soon be closed for many weeks of 2020?

 

Most of the unplanned activities were therefore aimed at supporting the business through the pandemic. For example, we were forecasting absence by store to understand where we might be short of resource and/or where we could redeploy John Lewis Partners into Waitrose shops. In a second example, we worked with the government to identify vulnerable customers, so we could give them priority for waitrose.com delivery slots. I’m really proud of my team - it’s incredible how much we achieved in such a short space of time.

 

Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?

 

This is simple – I expect it to be the best year ever. Last year was odd in many ways, but despite everything we made some good progress and laid the foundation for a very productive 2021. With that foundation and the new strategy, I expect data and analytics to make more impact this year than in any previous year.

 

Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?

 

Yes, definitely. Purpose and sound moralistic principles are an important part of the Partnership culture and what we stand for. Extending that into the data world is a natural step and we are already thinking about how we can best do that.

 

It’s a personal interest, too. I am aware that we have a talented team and, making a contribution to society with that talent feels very worthwhile.

 

What has been your path to power?

 

I have been lucky so far, working for several great companies, across various sectors and with some great people. Getting out of bed in the morning has never been a problem.

 

My first role, all those years ago, was as an operational research analyst for British Airways (and staff travel perks!). From there, I moved to Lloyds Bank, then onto British Gas and now John Lewis Partnership, with shorter spells at Marks & Spencer and Telewest in between. The common element linking all the roles is that I’ve bridged the gap between analytical teams and business decision makers. Doing analysis is one thing, but having an impact on decision making is where the value is and that’s what motivates me.

 

The current role at John Lewis Partnership is perfect. There are plenty of challenges, especially as we emerge from 2020, but with the backdrop of the retail sector, stiff competition, the Partnership ethos and a brilliant team, life will always be interesting.

 

As I look ahead this year, I’m looking forward to taking the analytical capability to the next level. Analytics and data science will play a major role in helping the Partnership recover – it’s a huge opportunity.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

Probably the step change in responsibility I was given 12 months ago, when the Partnership went through a significant leadership restructure. My role changed from leading the analytics and data science team for Waitrose, to leading a similar but much larger team for the whole business, so the scope grew to include John Lewis and financial services. It was a great vote of confidence and I feel privileged to have such a key role in a unique business.

 

Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?

 

It’s not a personal 2021 career goal, but it is an ambition for my team which will help more than 100 careers, as well as the business. It comes in two parts. Firstly, we need to transform both the self-serve availability of data and automation of reports across the business. This will make data more present and therefore part of the culture, it will free up analysts’ time, and it will develop those involved with the emerging Looker capability. Secondly, the analysts who were spending time on descriptive analytics can instead learn and develop more advanced techniques, making them better analysts and well placed to add more value to the business.

 

How closely aligned to the business are data and analytics both within your own organisation and at an industry level? What helps to bring the two closer together?

 

In terms of within the Partnership, I would say, “OK and improving rapidly”. We have made a lot of progress in the past couple of years and the potential of analytics and data science is now much more widely understood, which is reflected in the current strategy and investment plans.

 

The team is present across the whole business, helping to support both major strategic projects and the “always-on” everyday decisions such as personalisation and the operational areas. I’m excited about 2021 and progressing our impact even more.

 

At an industry level, retail is very broad, and alignment varies considerably. Some retailers are heavily data-led, others are less so, although it is worth noting that the retailers who are growing, and who are competing hardest at the moment are generally those who are most analytically mature.

 

Awareness and a better understanding of what analytics is, with some real examples, helps to bring analytics closer to the business. In other words, real life examples will lead to more demand and a closer relationship. In the vast majority of cases, once the value of analytics has been demonstrated, stakeholders just want more. It is a lack of awareness rather than a dislike of analytics that’s the cause of most gaps.

 

What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?

 

The key in my mind is to talk about decision-making and focus on how decisions can be improved, to benefit both the customer and the business. The conversation shouldn’t be about models, forecasts, clouds or random forests – even if stakeholders understand, they don’t often care. What does matter is that decisions and performance can be improved. By demonstrating that quickly (rather than perfectly) and engaging in a straightforward way, a lot of momentum can be achieved.

 

This has the added benefit of shifting the focus from backward looking glorified reporting, to really driving the future of the business. That switch in mentality/awareness of how analytics should be “plumbed-in” is critical.

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