Reflections on 2013: An Amazing Year of Learning and Growth

Reflections on 2013: An Amazing Year of Learning and Growth

Happy New Year from all of us at Books@Work!

As we close the books on 2013 and begin 2014, I cannot help but reflect back on the prior year. Nothing has occupied my thoughts and energies more this past year than Books@Work. As Felix, our board chair and my husband, reminds me, 2013 was intended to prove that the program works in multiple industries, with diverse participants and a wide array of reading materials. I am heartened to report that we have made this case resoundingly and that we are excited to take the program to the next level.

First, the facts…

We finished 2013 having kicked off our seventeenth program, with 1 already begun last week and 3 more ready to start in January. Several more programs are in active discussion for February starts. We have worked in hospitality, manufacturing, healthcare and distribution in five national companies. We have engaged 40 professors from seven different colleges and universities. We have read 58 different books of all genres, from Plato to Shakespeare to Fannie Flagg. Our proudest fact, however: all completed pilots to date have both renewed and expanded.

What have we learned along the way? 

It’s truly hard to list all that we have learned this year, as every conversation and every program has helped us to learn and to improve the concept, our delivery and our message to companies, participants, professors and communities. But a few really important insights stand out – for their power and their frequency.

There is a true hunger for learning, literature and collaborative exploration in today’s fast-paced and at times, overly pragmatic, world. 

With all the focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and well-publicized debates about the relevance and efficacy of humanities education, we have been touched by the interest in, and curiosity about, high quality literature.  Challenging, interesting literature holds a significant appeal to our participants. In fact, where we have provided book choices to our participants, they invariably chose the most challenging books – including Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Participants tell us that the opportunity to read with peers and the guidance of a professor encourages them to tackle a book they might not have otherwise picked up themselves. And while they are at times tough reads, they provide rewarding outcomes.

Many supervisors underestimate their people.

Several supervisors have told us that they know their employees won’t be interested in the program, only to be quite surprised at the number that volunteer to participate. They assume that people aren’t interested in things that do not directly affect their everyday lives and responsibilities. Through Books@Work, we have demonstrated that this is NOT true. In addition, we have heard supervisors express surprise at the insights of their employees, brought to light by an interesting conversation around a book or an idea. Literature has a way of enabling people to talk about ideas and concepts they would not otherwise broach. As one supervisor shared with us, “I’ve been incredibly impressed with the ideas expressed by several of my employees – deep insights that surprised me.”

Cross-hierarchical programs can be the most effective.

Books@Work enables colleagues to “leave their positions at the door” and to break down barriers to communication that often serve as impediments to effective cross-hierarchical collaboration. So many times we pigeonhole ourselves and fail to find the time to appreciate the insights and contributions of others. This is reflected over and over again in comments from our participants:

“When [people] open their mouths, it’s amazing what you learn from them. Once we get talking, it doesn’t matter who the managers are either. When we talk about the books, we are all talking about the same thing. ”

“I shared things with people who work for me that I never thought I would share and it was so liberating.”

“Learning more about people made understanding their behavior or demeanor so much easier. I saw them in a new and more open way.”

Books@Work completely blurs the line between the “learner” and the “teacher”.

Perhaps the most powerful outcome of Books@Work is that the intersection of professor expertise and participant experience creates a unique kind of learning – for everyone. Our participants enjoy the professors and deeply respect their expertise and knowledge. But the professors express their deep appreciation for the insights of the participants – their experience and perspectives bring a very different context to literature they know well. As one professor shared, “I learned so much: our conversations led me to think about the book differently – and it has changed the way I teach it to undergraduates.”

Our goals for 2014? 

To continue to surprise and delight people at all levels of the organization as they discover qualities, traits and skills in their colleagues they had never imagined. And if they learn a little something about themselves along the way – well, we’re really cooking!

To actively bring Books@Work into the community – beyond the confines of a single workplace – by engaging non-profit organizations, community service organizations and adults wherever they may be reached. The power of sharing ideas through text with colleagues and a professor has proven itself to have wide appeal. We will continue to widen our scope and reach – and ultimately our impact.

Would you enjoy Books@Work in your workplace or in your community? Please reach out to us and let us design the perfect program for you and your colleagues.

Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606–1683/1684), Still Life, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, via Wikimedia Commons

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.