Getting clarity on what the shop floor needs.

2012: Volkswagen Group South Africa

Our first big corporate client – the South African subsidiary of multinational automotive company, Volkswagen Group – validated our belief that creative, in-depth research is the only foundation on which a successful communication strategy can be built.

At the Port Elizabeth plant of Volkswagen Group South Africa (VWSA), two vehicle models and engine derivatives for both the local and international markets are manufactured. The plant employs over 4,000 people.
In 2010, VWSA launched a strategy to take the business from “Good to Great” by 2014. Internal communication was an integral component of the strategy’s people pillar. Its role in “Good to Great” was the implementation of an internal communication strategy that would keep employees informed, provide communication support, communicate strategic initiatives, and build relationships.

The aim was to improve employee engagement and create a sense of belonging. The internal communication team decided that an audit was needed in the production areas, to establish a baseline for internal communication, and DevCom was contracted to work with the team on the project.

Our implementation

Our recommendation was practical research that would answer specific business questions.

The research included 258 employees representing all six production areas and all organisational levels, from operators to the production director. In the interest of consistency, we used the same methodology across the board: facilitated questionnaires, personal interviews, and dynamic focus groups.

Our methodology was designed to be as inclusive and participatory as possible:

  • We used pictures to make intangible concepts tangible.
  • Appreciative interviewing techniques focused participants on how they wanted to be communicated with, rather than what was lacking at the time.
  • Interpreters were always available.

The two most salient findings from this process were the need to revive the human element – the VW family – and the fact that communication and organisational excellence depended on close cooperation between the production, communication, and HR divisions. Addressing communication gaps came down to rediscovering the balance between people and production.


Skepticism was a major initial barrier. The client had doubts about our story-telling methodology, but after several meetings and, to their credit, the engineers trusted us. The production director even contributed financially to the project and made time in his production meetings for feedback and solution discussions. As a result, the picture boards became valuable tools in the feedback and training processes that followed the audit. We played our part by backing up story-telling with quantitative data.

A further source of skepticism was the fact that similar processes had not led to any changes in the past and, more importantly, participants never received feedback. The research team worked hard to overcome this and personally provided participants with feedback about the research findings and the proposed solutions. This action alone created tremendous goodwill, trust, and positivity, which set the tone for the solutions implementation phase.

The reality of a production environment posed its own challenges. Research days didn’t keep office hours as we came in early or stayed late into the evening to fit our work around shift changes and production schedules.
We were reminded again of the importance of testing before implementing. The pilot focus group with communication champions identified tone and trust as major issues that we would have missed, had we not tested the methodology.

Our impact

Despite all this, the research project was a resounding success. Based on the findings, the client developed and implemented a robust solution for shop floor communication, fully supported by leadership. The solution focused on providing a platform for sharing information and engaging with employees through open dialogue. All managers and supervisors were trained and coached on how to present to and engage with their employees. Meeting frequency was increased, and a policy and evaluation process was developed, supported by full communication toolkits.

The production and communication departments also started spending strategic time together in feedback meetings and informal discussions.

This ground-breaking research collaboration between DevCom and VWSA won an IABC Gold Quill Excellence Award and was named Best of the Best in the Research Category of the 2012 competition.

Examples of the visual approach we follow on research. We do this for two reasons:

  1. Visuals activate the part of the brain we want participants to respond from.
  2. It is a fact checker for questions that have yes/no answers. This way we get context and the reason for answers.

Since 2012, DevCom has completed an absenteeism study and assisted with a strategy to reduce absenteeism within VWSA. We’ve assisted this client with the introduction of its OneTeam meetings to facilitate improved flow and trust. Further to our research, the organisation trained all of its managers in communication skills. In 2019, we repeated the research study, finding that the overall scores in terms of tone and trust had improved, and that the blockage in flow on a managerial level had been resolved. In 2020, VWSA again contracted DevCom to build the communication capacity of managers and supervisors.