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The Innovation Hotline: How Colruyt Group is Championing Intrapreneurship with Collaborative Idea Generation

Often times, the most successful and innovative companies stem from the humblest of origins. Colruyt Group is a great case in point. Its rapid expansion from a small, family-run wholesale goods business in 1928 into a multinational conglomerate with 30,000 employees, can be attributed in part to the creative – and ingenious – ways it has crowdsourced ideas from employees. Back in the 1970s, Colruyt pioneered the use of a telephone-based system to give their workforce a voice, and now in 2019 they are using Qmarkets’ cutting edge idea management platform to facilitate ideation on a whole new level…

Although the name Colruyt has historically been synonymous with the popular supermarkets chain, today that is only one component of the multifaceted Colruyt Group. The group is made up 15 subsidiary companies, ranging from baby product outlets (Dreambaby), to printing services (Symeta) to E-commerce companies (Collect&Go) and more. The project with Qmarkets was designed to retain the people-centric elements that made Colruyt’s previous employee innovation efforts so effective, while scaling them up to spread this ethos throughout the whole group.

Qmarkets sought an interview with Eef Wilgenhof – one of the main leaders tasked with overseeing the IDnet project – to learn more about the rich history of innovation at Colruyt, and the role that Qmarkets’ platform has to play in building the future of the company.

Collaborative Idea Generation - phoneHow it all began: The Innovation “Hotline”


Qmarkets: Thanks for joining us today Eef – we’re excited to share your unique insights with our readers, but first of all, please could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within this project?

Collaborative Idea Generation - trucks

Colruyt’s transport fleet during the 1970s – the company’s ‘Green Telephone’ innovation era.

Eef: Sure, no problem! My role supporting the IDnet Project involves being part of a three-person team within the Department of Work Simplification at Colruyt Group. We form the ‘Centre of Excellence’ for idea management at the company. We also run workshops offline to generate new ideas for company improvements, as well as enrich them. It’s my responsibility to ensure that each and every employee at Colruyt Group understands how they can (and why they should) submit their ideas to the company – both on and off the IDnet platform.

Qmarkets: Great. I know that Colruyt has been around for a long time now (almost 100 years?), so what is the main factor that continues to drives innovation at your company, after such a long time?

Eef: Well if you look back at our history, I think it can be traced to an idea our CEO had in the 1970s. At that time we were expanding rapidly and it was seen as crucial to maintain an easy exchange of ideas between departments and locations. Fundamentally, there was a belief that the individual who is executing a job should be able to provide their input and feedback on the process, rather than just ‘following orders’ created by someone in an office at the HQ.

To fulfil this need, the management team decided to setup a dedicated idea hotline across our locations called the “Green Telephone” system. There were literally green telephones hanging up in all of our shops that would allow any employee to share their ideas directly with management. From there an idea would be passed on to the relevant decision maker and evaluated for implementation. This system was very successful for many years, and certainly helped to create an early culture of innovation amongst our employees.

Collaborative Idea Generation - bulbWhy Colruyt Group Implemented Innovation Management Software

Qmarkets: So, I understand that you’re using our system in quite a unique way. Please could you share some more information about this?

Eef: So essentially, we’re using the Qmarkets platform to encourage the adoption of best-practices across our company. So rather than asking our employees to answer top-down challenges decided by management, we’re asking employees to share any suggestions they have had as a direct result of their direct working experiences.

We do run a few ‘top down’ global challenges each year, sometimes with limited audiences so that we’re only asking the relevant individuals for ideas. We also allow our individual subsidiary companies to launch their own challenges which are exclusive to their employees.

Qmarkets: Cool. So, what ultimately led to Colruyt choosing Qmarkets?

Eef: After considering a lot of different vendors as part of a long selection process, we decided that Qmarkets was the best fit for our unique requirements. For example, we have an ‘enrichment phase’ where the person who launches an idea can choose to share their suggestion with their own selected audience of users, to collaborate and develop the submission before taking it live. We decided on this approach because we know how difficult it can be to open up and share your ideas with all of your colleagues and peers… We wanted to create a safe environment where ideas could be ‘incubated’ while they were still new and fragile.

“After considering a lot of different vendors as part of a long selection process, we decided that Qmarkets was the best fit for our unique requirements. We wanted to create a safe environment where ideas could be ‘incubated’ while they were still new and fragile.”

Qmarkets: That’s a great point. If you want to get the maximum engagement for your platform it’s crucial to make your users feel safe. So what comes next after the “enrichment” phase?

Eef: Right. So, when an idea has gone through enrichment, it progress to the ‘evaluation’ stage, where it is made visible to a wider audience who will be able to vote and comment on it. During the evaluation phase, authorized users can choose the ‘I want to adopt this idea’ option. This will mean that the idea will go through a thorough process of appraisal and metric gathering, culminating with the idea being brought to life or rejected – with feedback provided as to why. Qmarkets was the best match for this idea flow process. The fact that we can gather ideas randomly as well as the result of assigned topics was a big selling point for us.

Qmarkets: Perfect. So, was there anything else unique about the system we created for you? Once you decided to move forward with Qmarkets what was the process like?

Eef: Well to support the unique workflow there were a couple of other requirements. So firstly your “Join the team” button was transformed into an “Adopt This Idea” button, and we also implemented a custom widget on the idea page for comment tags. We also needed notifications and automated email communications to be sent in a unique way, and of course SSO (Single-Sign-On) was mandatory.

Colruyt’s ‘Vertical Farm’ Initiative reflects the company’s strong focus on implementing bold ideas to reach their productivity and sustainability objectives.  

After we chose Qmarkets we started with a ‘proof of concept’ period which lasted for about a year involving about 3,000 people – 10% of the total workforce. We did lots of testing and optimizing during this year to make sure the process was feasible. After that, it was like the big bang! The rest of the companies were quickly launched on the platform at the same time to avoid any confusion. Overall, we’ve found that the platform really supports interaction throughout the entire organization.

Collaborative Idea Generation - IDnetHow Colruyt Group Used IDnet to Drive Innovation in the Retail Industry

Qmarkets: Once you were up and running, how did you make sure all your employees knew about the system? Did you offer any kind of incentive to your users?

Eef: We launched a big marketing campaign and distributed small brochures throughout the company, with meetings organized for individuals who would have a new responsibility within the system. We’ve always believed that any employee can have a great idea, so it was important for us to communicate this from the start. We also wanted to show them how user-friendly and simple the tool is to use.

We decided early on that we did not want to ‘bribe’ our employees by offering prizes or rewards for participation – this doesn’t really fit with our company values. We found that the best incentive for our employees was recognition rather than reward. Our employees love when we recognize them individually through the company newspaper – they walk into the office the next day 10cm taller than the day before!

Qmarkets: What improvements would you say our software has enabled you to achieve at Colruyt Group?

Eef: Well, ensuring the quality of ideas continues to be a main goal for us. With the platform, we know it’s now far easier for evaluators to sort through ideas compared with having to evaluate them manually through emails. We’ve also been able to promote intrapreneurship and encourage employees to take greater pride in their ideas. On the other hand, by having a collaboration process in place, we can achieve much more transparency when it comes to ideation. Under our old system, an employee would be told that their idea was rejected without much additional feedback – which would lead to frustration. Now, a lot of more detailed responses can be provided easily.

“With the platform, we know it’s now far easier for evaluators to sort through ideas compared with having to evaluate them manually through emails. We’ve also been able to promote intrapreneurship and encourage employees to take greater pride in their ideas.”

Another improvement is that now, ideas always remain searchable on the platform and they don’t need to be permanently closed or rejected. Everything is archived, so an idea that isn’t workable now might be in two, or even ten years’ time.

Collaborative Idea Generation - growthOutstanding Results – How Colruyt Group Maximized Innovation ROI

Qmarkets: Can you share some of the results you’ve achieved with the platform? How many ideas, comments, and votes have been submitted in total and over how long a period?

Eef: Well, first of all I’m happy to share that in 2018 alone, the forecasted value of implemented ideas was in the region of 800,000 euros!

In total we’ve generated over 3000 ideas inside the system, over 12,000 comments, and over 28,000 votes. Since we launched the platform in 2016 participation has gone up and down, however we’re consistently generating 50 ideas on a monthly basis, which is a pace we’re happy with. Out of the 35000 users we have a core audience of around 6,500 users who are highly engaged with the tool.

Qmarkets: That’s awesome! Would you be able to share some examples of cool ideas you’ve implemented from the platform?

Eef: We’ve actually received quite a few really creative ideas that have helped us to better serve our customers, as well as support our staff and the wider community. One great example was an idea for a mobile Colruyt store – basically a compact popup venue which we can easily deploy at festivals and other events. Aside from allowing us to access a substantial income stream through exposure to a key demographic, the idea also falls in line with the corporation’s environmental sustainability goals.

Another idea in a similar vein was for a shuttle bus program, connecting our Colruyt store in Dour to the site of the annual Dour Music Festival. The 340 trips made by our recently expanded fleet of shuttle buses eliminated the need for over 5,000 car journeys, resulting in a major reduction in traffic and litter.

Another good idea which we adopted was for a ‘Colruyt Groupie Run’, where over 1500 Belgian co-workers (along with their friends and family) completed a sponsored run to raise money for the Collibri Foundation – an organization that supports education projects for vulnerable youth.

Colruyt’s ‘Groupie Run’ was implemented as a result of collaborative idea generation.  

Qmarkets: Are you measuring any R&D conversion metrics?

Eef: We track idea activity, the amount of ideas received, and how many are implemented. Once an idea is adopted there’s a process of executing the project, but that’s outside of IDnet.

I should mention that IDnet functions in close connection with our Innovation and R&D&I department. We often work together, but IDnet focuses more on idea management projects – even those that involve very small improvement. Continuous improvement is a main best practice for the platform. IDnet gives our staff a platform to inspire others with improvement suggestions and do so in a way that bypasses unnecessary bureaucracy.

Collaborative Idea Generation - road aheadThe Road Ahead – Colruyt’s Future Plans for Championing Innovation in the Retail Industry

Qmarkets: What are your plans for your innovation initiative moving forward? Do you think you’ll expand your project to involve customers in open innovation projects?

Eef: Our ultimate dream is to involve customers with our idea management system and to give them an easy way to provide their ideas. Today, our Customer Service captures a lot of ideas and the data is sent directly to our businesses. We’d ultimately like to give customers a tool or application that can be used to enrich their ideas. However, this is likely something we won’t be able to get to for at least a few years. In the short term, we’re maintaining our focus on ways we can improve the quality of internal ideas, as well as foster greater ownership around them.

Collaborative Idea Generation - colruytAbout Colruyt Group

Colruyt Group is a multinational retail corporation, based in Belgium and active in France, Luxembourg, India, and Hong Kong. The corporation currently has approximately 30,000 employees within more than 15 subsidiary companies. These range from organic supermarkets (Bio-Planet), to baby product outlets (Dreambaby), to E-commerce companies (Collect&Go) and much more.

Beginning as a family wholesale goods company in 1928, Colruyt Group has expanded and diversified rapidly over the decades. The company’s strong focus on delivering long-term added value, fully supporting employees, putting in place environmentally sustainable practices, and investing in the quality of brands has played a major role in driving this growth.

Colruyt Groups business focus has also yielded major ROIs. In the 2018/19 financial year alone, the corporation gained 9.434 million euros in revenue, opened 24 new stores, achieved 100% sustainable electricity consumption, and generated 13% less CO2 than in 2018. Considering these achievements, Colruyt Group looks set to grow from strength to strength and consolidate its position as a leading innovative retail corporation.

To discover how Qmarkets can help you foster growth-driving collaborative idea generation at your company, contact us today!

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