A few years ago, my wife, Ann Kowal Smith, facilitated an education initiative in Northeast Ohio. She shared with me many an idea. One night she came home quite excited. She had observed that everybody focuses on increasing college attainment rates and on reducing high school dropout rates, but nobody thinks about the rest of the adult population – the nearly 60% of American adults who have a high school degree (and even some college) but no BA. They most likely have kids and a job and a full slate of responsibilities. That many of them may find the time and the money to go back to college is a pipe dream. By creatively engaging this group to become lifelong learners and critical thinkers who grow personally and professionally, might we have an opportunity to help shape and nurture the learning environment for their children and their communities?
This concept sounded quite compelling to me. But then I wondered how I might stay the “supportive” husband while telling her that she had unfortunately gone over the deep end. Her idea, as it unfolded: Have front-line workers read great literature and jointly discuss and reflect on their readings with a college professor in a weekly one-hour seminar. And then came the greatest audacity: the companies should pay for it. I voiced my concerns and simply said: “If you believe it, why don’t you test it?” And of course she did. I was – I admit – still skeptical.
One day we were driving to visit our older daughter at college and Ann said: “Hiram College, the college whose professors participated in our pilot Books@Work experiment, is on the way. Would you mind coming with me to participate in a feedback session with the professors?” How could I say no to that?
As I was sitting in the session listening to eight professors talk about their experiences leading the workplace seminar, I was very moved. These weren’t business books they were using – they were talking about Emile Zola, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. They described their excitement as they watched cafeteria workers gain self-confidence, articulate their perspectives more crisply and even constructively argue with each other. They described how much they themselves learned from the experience of their students – and how much they were eager to do it again. That day, it started to dawn on me that Ann’s crazy idea might have some merit.
During the many years of leading the lean manufacturing practice for McKinsey&Co, I learned that whenever we gave front-line workers new ideas and a way to express themselves, we were blown away. Workers whose insights were traditionally ignored would rise to the occasion and surprise us (and themselves) by how much they had to contribute. Early in our lean journey, we had mostly focused on building technical skills for front-line employees but realized that impact increased dramatically when we began to consider the mindsets and behaviors of an organization’s workforce. This includes everything from crisper communications to conflict resolution and problem solving. In that faculty meeting, I realized that Books@Work was focusing exactly on those so-called “soft” skills. I also recalled that in any employer survey of “skills most needed” and “skills most lacking,” these soft skills always find their way to the top of the list. That’s when it dawned on me that my wife was on to something very interesting. It was time to explore the impact Books@Work could have on business outcomes.
Three weeks later I found myself meeting with the CEO of the large food services company where we had run the initial Books@Work pilot. Very quickly, the CEO explained that he was absolutely convinced Books@Work could improve employee engagement, reduce attrition (a big economic driver in that industry), increase successful promotions from within and help drive productivity and customer satisfaction. As we are now scaling up Books@Work, we are working with our employer-partners to monitor these metrics. Early evidence shows positive impact.
We believe we have found a win-win model: the companies see business impact and are thus willing to pay for the program. At the same time, the program has an even bigger societal impact, one that is slightly harder to measure (but we are working on it). But I’m sure one day my wife will take me on a road trip to meet the most esoteric sociologist and we will find a way to prove that point as well.
In the meantime we’re working toward our ten-year aspiration to have 100,000 people benefit from Books@Work each year. All you need to understand to buy into that aspiration is that having front-line workers reading great literature improves the bottom line of a business.