Do employees learn best when they teach themselves? When American Re-Insurance Co. (Am-Re) established its corporate university, Thom Smith wanted to find out. So he started a companywide employee book club.
"It's a simple approach, the cost of entry is low, the time commitment is low, yet the relevance to business can be extremely high," says Smith, the president of American Re-Insurance University (ARU). While most book clubs are poring over a New York Times bestseller, the ARU book club is reading Built to Last (HarperBusiness 2002), The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster, 1990) and Who Moved My Cheese? (Putnam Publishing Group, 1998).
Every few months Smith announces what the club will read next with a companywide e-mail. Once interested employees have registered online, he buys the books, distributes them, and assigns employees to a book discussion group. Smith tries to avoid having people from the same division in the same group. After everyone has read the book, participants meet over their lunch hour to discuss what they have read. Each group has a volunteer leader, who guides the discussion with a series of questions Smith provides.
"We're trying to get employees to think more broadly about the business, but we're also getting presidents in the same room with file clerks and support staff," says Smith. "It's a great mix and a safe environment for every employee to offer their opinions and ideas."
Smith's goal is that employees understand what they read and how to apply it to Am-Re's operations. To encourage that, Smith chooses books that are relevant to the company's current situation.
For example, while Am-Re was in the midst of a reorganization last March, the book club read The Employee Handbook for Organizational Change (Pritchett Publishing Co., 1990). During group meetings, Smith's questions encouraged participants to discuss how the handbook applied to their experiences during the reorganization. "Any feedback that suggests improvement or an opportunity to do something different gets forwarded to the right department," says Smith.
Participation remains strong since the book club's inception in March 2001. About 10 percent of Am-Re's workforce participates each time a new book is announced, but it's not the same 10 percent each time. The only expense is $10,000 a year for books. "Compared to other learning expenditures, that's very reasonable," Smith says. "To touch that many people with that little money is a good outcome for us." —H.D.