Successful Workplace Cultures Make Space for Collective Learning

Successful Workplace Cultures Make Space for Collective Learning

In the world of the sciences, researchers have long known that they need to be on the lookout for surprises in their data. When something unexpected repeatedly emerges, it is time to sit up, take notice and challenge the assumptions that shaped your research. The same is true for Books@Work. In asking our participants about their personal learning, we realized the power of our work to change workplace culture through collective learning.

As we predicted, person after person described the book discussions as a catalyst for individual learning. One quality control technician said,

“It was really, really interesting how [the discussions] would open more doors to learning. And I just think that every employer everywhere would say, wait a minute. I want my employees learning all the time and I don’t care how they’re learning or what they’re learning because eventually that learning will help us.”

To our surprise, however, many more people stressed the power of mutual awareness and shared growth that emerged from the discussions – especially across organizational hierarchies and functions. One mechanical engineer, an immigrant to the U.S., said,

“It’s quite surprising. [The books give] me a good kind of picture of other people’s thoughts. . . If you have different backgrounds, this gives you a good angle which they can go through and open another door of possibility, of different thought, and accept people [and] how they react to it. We read the same page, the same thing, but we see in different ways.”

Veterans Domiciliary participants

Image by Ann Hermes, The Christian Science Monitor: Books@Work participants at the Cleveland VA Medical Center Veterans Domiciliary

While we had thought that Books@Work would transform individuals, the interviews showed that discussing literature was also a catalyst for fundamental workplace change. A lawyer at one company told us that she loved hearing other people’s stories as they connected them to the reading. A CEO described the way his team used the program to develop a new organizational system that is built on trust and authentic relationships: “It helps us bring our humanity into the workplace.”

Not only did Books@Work enhance individual learning – it was changing the culture of the workplace itself. Relationships became more nuanced and respectful as participants discovered shared narratives and common values. By digging deeper into unexpected data, we saw how participants leverage literary narratives to explore connections to their individual lives and to collective experiences within the organization.

Conversation about a story leads to joint meaning-making and the realization of new individual and collective possibilities. The changes we have seen in companies remind us of the company culture that Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey describe in their book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization:

“When authentic community forms in groups, learning happens: a collective intelligence. A learning community is. . . greater than the sum of its parts and can handle far greater complexity than a group of brilliant individuals. Something magical and important happens in a learning community.”

Our interviews have both affirmed and shed new light on the intuition that originally drove the creation of Books@Work: engagement with others, through literature in the tradition of the liberal arts, allows colleagues at every level to share their human experience and identities, revealing untapped potential in themselves – and, just as importantly, new possibilities within the organization as a whole. As we continue to gather data, we are eager to explore the new surprises that await.

Image: Oleg Holosiy, Researchers of the Depths, 1991, [Fair Use] via

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

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

Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.