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Posted 2.10.14

Ann Kowal Smith, Books@Work founder An alumna of two CWRU programs has started a nonprofit organization called Books@Work with the goal of promoting workplace cohesion and employee well-being in an unexpected setting: the literature seminar.

Ann Kowal Smith received her law degree from CWRU’s School of Law and, after spending much of her career in law and then at McKinsey & Co., her Doctor of Management (DM) degree from Weatherhead. The DM attracts high-level professionals who typically have long and impressive resumes but also a restless desire to keep learning. Where the DM classroom brings together professionals who use academic theories to understand what happens in the workplace, Kowal Smith’s latest venture does the opposite--bringing the university classroom experience directly to people on the job.

Kowal Smith recruited professors from CWRU and other colleges and universities to choose a favorite book and visit a company once a month to teach a seminar on it. Some of the faculty are English professors, but others specialize in chemistry, psychology and other areas.

“They teach a book that they love which may be completely outside their discipline,” Kowal Smith explains.

Nor is the book related to the company’s work. Past books have included classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and contemporary works like Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about growing up in Iran. Shakespeare has made a guest appearance, and so has Truman Capote. The books are as various as their readers: The seminars bring together employees from every part of a company, from the shop floor to the C-suite. No matter their salary or title, every participant is a student.

“Cross-hierarchical groups break down barriers,” Kowal Smith says. “Employees learn new things about one another that can promote cohesion, and supervisors see who their most motivated learners are.”

And, the Books@Work web site states, everyone benefits from practicing their analytic and communication skills, building confidence and creativity.

Currently, more than 40 faculty members are leading discussions at six companies located in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Kowal Smith says that ultimately, she would like the program to reach 100,000 people a year. And since all of the participating companies renewed their commitment and added more groups, Books@Work is off to a great start.

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Check out the Books@Work website for the nonprofit's latest news.

Learn more about the DM program.

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