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The Reading Group: An Inexpensive And Effective Way To Train


Dan Farley, CPM, CPIM
Dan Farley, CPM, CPIM, Senior Training Representative, Silicon Graphics Computer Systems, Mt. View, CA 94043 (415) 933-6658

81st Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1996 - Chicago, IL

Training activities are under tremendous strain in today's working environment. Training budgets are being pressured by cost cutting. Increased workloads are making it difficult for employees to find time for training. The reading group is an inexpensive and effective training method that in some situations provides better subject retention than many traditional seminars. This session will provide ways to create and manage a reading group, suggest possible topics, and relate positive and negative experiences.


  • "Id like to provide more training for my employees, but my training budget was slashed."
  • "I'm signed up for a class all day tomorrow, but I'm going to cancel because I'm too busy."
  • "It was a great class, but it was too much information in one day."
  • "I took that seminar, but I don't remember much. I haven't opened the binder since then."
  • "That was a great class! I wish we could have had someone else take it with me!"

Do any of these comments sound familiar? They represent some of the problems of traditional classes or seminars: cost, inconvenience, poor retention, and inefficiency. One alternative is the reading group. A reading group can train a group of 10-15 people for less than the cost of sending one person to a seminar. The method promotes teamwork and relationship building through group learning, and provides better retention than most seminars. I have used reading groups numerous times over the past five years to train the departments I managed. Reading groups are also simple to organize and operate.

A reading group is organized around a text, typically a book that is a generally accepted, authoritative text on whatever subject the group desires to learn. An example could be Fisher and Ury's Getting to Yes, about win-win negotiation. The group meets once a week for an hour to discuss one chapter of the book. Group members all commit to have read the chapter before the session. Discussion leadership rotates among members each week. Discussion leaders usually provide a brief summary of the chapter, but are mostly encouraged to promote discussion of the book using exercises, provocative questions, and so forth. Members are encouraged to ask questions to the group about issues they did not understand. Groups typically meet for 10-12 weeks, depending upon book length, complexity of the topic, and if the group creates other experiential activities other than the chapter discussions.

The topics best suited for reading groups are non-technical topics about which a group could gain sufficient knowledge by reading a generally accepted authoritative text. This allows the group to "self-instruct," since it is not reliant upon a technical leader to teach the topics. Examples of suitable topics are negotiation, time management, finance for non-finance people, personal development, and just-in-time manufacturing. In other words, don't start a reading group about rocket science. Topics such a statistical process control or any software instruction simply don't work in reading groups because technical instructors are needed. A bibliography of selected texts is included at the end of this paper.

Retention Activities.
One of the keys to effective retention of a subject is follow-up activities that reinforce learning. Traditional seminars rarely offer such activities. One of the key elements of a reading group is the up-front commitment by members to create activities that will help with retention after the group has disbanded. People tend to think of possible activities as they work their way through the book. Here are a couple of examples: In a Getting to Yes reading group on negotiations held in the purchasing department, buyers formed a buddy network. A buyer preparing for negotiations with a supplier could use the buddy as an advisor on the use of negotiation skills. Another purchasing group reading a book about "finance for non-financial people" created a software program to analyze quickly the financial information of suppliers. The convenience and economy of reading groups allowed the opportunity for group learning; follow-up activities augment that work with teambuilding experiences that enhance retention.

Survey Data.
I have used reading groups seven times over a period of five years to educate about 100 participants. Below is data from 15 respondents of a survey sent out to participants of reading groups. I have separated the data by positives and negatives, and listed the data by frequency of response. (#1 is the most common response).

What did you like about reading groups?

  1. One hour a week is much easier to do than a half or full-day class. No travel required.
  2. It provided initiative and discipline to read a whole book.
  3. Informal atmosphere
  4. Got to know my co-workers better
  5. I learned the subject better because I was expected to be involved.

What did you dislike about reading groups?

  1. occasionally we needed an expert to answer questions we weren't sure of.
  2. Rotation of discussion leaders caused sessions to vary widely.
  3. Unless you were leading, no penalty for missing a session.
  4. Not all participants were at the same level. Some were intimidated to ask questions.

Note: I have learned that having a topic expert as an occasional consultant is a key for any reading group. This is someone who is very knowledgeable on the topic, who could come in every 3-4 weeks and answer some accumulated questions the group is unsure of. If a group needs help more often then the topic is probably too technical for a reading group format.

Lack of time, lack of money, inconvenience, irrelevance, and no follow-up activities are some of the main reasons why companies cannot train, or waste training activities. If topics are selected carefully and groups are organized properly, the reading group method can overcome these hurdles and deliver training in an efficient, informal manner that promotes group learning and subject retention. The methods presented here for organization, topic selection and retention activities should help organize and manage a reading group so that training can continue amidst the typical factors working against it in today's dynamic workplace.


Fisher, Roger and William Ury. Getting to Yes. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.

Ury, William. Getting Past No. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.

Ray, Michael and Rochelle Myers. Creativity in Business. New York: Doubleday Books, 1986.

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday Books, 1990.

Covey, Stephen. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

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