When done right, research can dazzle.

2017: Sappi Forests

All 5,000 Sappi Southern Africa employees had already taken part in the company’s annual global employee engagement survey during 2015, but the language, concepts and metrics used did not resonate with the bulk of the audience. What was missing was an understanding of how to use messages and media to achieve specific outcomes, specific to tone, flow and trust of communication.

Sappi Forests has a large group of employees and contractor workers that rely on effective operational communication to achieve their collective targets. But operational communication was an area that required improvement, so as to achieve better productivity and safety behaviour.

Our implementation

The research involved 961 participants: employees, contractors and leaders from all organisational levels. We conducted surveys and focus groups, spearheaded by three teams of three members each, over a four-week period.

DevCom was contracted to deep dive into the elements of operational communication driving engagement, to answer this question: “How do we improve operational communication to achieve better engagement to achieve business results?”

The DevCom team realised that we needed to develop an innovative approach for the research itself, if we wanted to get the right answers.

We designed an illustrated questionnaire that was suitable for all levels of the organisation, from business executives to mostly illiterate blue-collar workers. Pictures made the questionnaire easier to understand and quicker to facilitate, but also helped respondents to use the right side of their brains to give emotional answers, not rational answers.


  • The first major challenge the DevCom team encountered was to ensure that the illustrations conveyed the correct message to everyone. By the end of testing the questionnaire with various pilot groups (including Sappi support staff and labourers), the illustrations had been adapted according to the input received.
  • The large geographical area was the second big challenge. The research teams travelled approximately 12,000km to the research areas, where rough terrain required that all teams had a 4×4 vehicle and excellent driving capabilities.
  • The language barrier was a challenge. DevCom included isiZulu-speaking facilitators in each research team.
  • The logistical planning was complex as each employee had a different schedule, and the lack of telecom infrastructure posed some challenges when it came to finalising arrangements with participants and capturing data.

The research aimed to understand the following elements of operational communication:

Our impact

The illustrated questionnaire explained difficult terms and situations in a way that everyone understood, and they took 20 minutes less to facilitate than traditional questionnaires. This was a great innovation, saving time and money and delivering excellent results.

For instance, it provided tangible examples of intangible concepts, and many of the tested concepts influenced the messaging that was developed in the subsequent strategy.

More importantly, however, the findings of the research led to changes in the organisation; the most important being that:

  • Production performance is negatively influenced by content filtering,
  • Safety communication and terminology is not being understood by everyone, and
  • There was lack of trust between fellow employees and corporate messages.

All of these and other elements were addressed as a result of the research. Subsequently, a full safety and operations communication budget was approved to roll out over two years, and some quick wins in terms of safety communication were immediately implemented.

We are proud to report that this work eventually yielded an award-winning safety campaign.