Using Book Clubs As a Strategic Learning Tool

It might surprise you to learn that Oprah didn’t create the concept of the book club. While she popularized it for many, most experts feel book clubs have been around since the early 1700’s. At the start they were more often reading clubs – acim were scarce and not everyone could read, so they often involved one person reading the book to the rest of the group. The book club experience began as a social learning exercise – and like today some were probably more drawn to the social aspects while others came for the learning.

In this article I want to give you some ideas for making a book club a valuable part of your learning strategy – whether you are thinking about this from an organizational perspective and want to start a book club inside your company, or you are thinking more personally and you want to create a club or group outside of work. Different people are attracted to book clubs for different reasons. While there aren’t any “wrong” reasons, it is important to get clear on what the focus and goals for your group are. Incidentally, some people aren’t yet attracted because the reasons they see may not appeal to them.

For both groups of people, and for the success and sustainability of your club, get a clear purpose. Because you are reading this article, I will assume your purpose relates to learning. Your purpose should the types of subject matter or topics you will address, why the group exists, and what you hope people can gain from it. From this description you will be able to market and communicate your club more effectively.

Some people are readers, and some aren’t. This doesn’t mean non-readers can’t gain from a book club – in fact I know of many people who, though involvement in a successful book club, increased their reading intake significantly – but that fact shouldn’t be overlooked. The people who start book clubs are typically readers – and they don’t always understand people not being readers. Why am I making this point? Because you want people involved in the club who want to be there and you want clear expectations for everyone involved.

The “readers” will want to read more and perhaps meet more frequently. The “non-readers” will be more conservative in these things. All of this will be worked out easier with your purpose clearly stated. Then you can attract people based on that, not so much on the reading itself. (Notice I am talking about attracting not “strongly encouraging” or making it a job expectation that people participate. Encourage and influence based on benefits, not organizational hierarchy or peer pressure. Gaining participants that way won’t typically lead to a great result.

There are probably as many possible processes as there are people involved in creating book clubs. There are a number of good books about book clubs in general, and while they may not speak to organizational uses, there are good ideas in them for you to adapt. In my brief space, let me just make a few comments. Have a process. While your process might shift and adjust over time, have a clear agenda and approach that you will use. This will make expectations clear and will keep the group on task.

Have a facilitator. Because the process here matters, and a free flowing conversation might flow into the weeds, have a facilitator. That role can remain with one person, or rotate. Some groups rotate the facilitator to the person who championed the book for the group to read, others rotate it regularly. It matters less how you pick the person than that you do pick the person.

Make it a conversation. Make sure the group and the facilitator are clear that this isn’t a book report or a quiz, checking up on whether people read the assignment (this assumption is one reason people don’t want to join in the first place.) Your process should facilitate a conversation about important topics, using the book as the jumping off point.

Connect it to real life. When you do this step and the next one, your book club becomes an intentional, strategic learning tool. Remember that the end it isn’t about the book, it is about what we can learn from the book. Make sure the conversation talks about how the principles, examples and ideas in the book connect to real life and work. Help people apply what they learned. Here is the bottom line. I read a book, and hopefully enjoyed it. Then I went to a book club meeting and talked about the book. So what? What can I do differently or better because of what I learned? Make sure that this is always a part of the group conversation.

As I said before, done well, this is less about the book than it is the conversation, learning and application the book creates. Given that, there are probably few books that couldn’t be used. My experience says, let the group select books based on the purpose of the group. The group and their interests will drive this just fine. When the process is too book focused, people will engage more based on whether they like (or think they will like) the style, author or book itself. By helping people focus on the bigger picture and purpose, the book becomes a lovely and enjoyable means to the end.

In summary, book clubs can be a great way to encourage learning from reading and more importantly create insights and application through discussion. Learning will occur if two people just talk about a book they read (or even if one person talks about a book they read); taking some simple steps, like those outlined here will help you get more learning for both yourself and others.

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