Was It Worth It?
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

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“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Was It Worth It? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine September 2000

Like most industrial engineers, my formal engineering economics education gets the best of me sometimes.  This recently happened a few months ago when our management team was trying to decide which book we should read next as part of our group learning effort.  While I had participated in these types of efforts before, the cost versus benefits argument that is inherent with such a decision had never really hit me.  Even though my peers had often expressed their frustrations to me about whether or not reading business books or articles really made a difference, I had not thought about the actual costs of participating in these group reading efforts.  This time I did.

We had just taken twelve weeks to read the new ‘book of the month', covering one chapter a week.  Each chapter review took an average of thirty minutes to complete, and there were ten members of upper management on our leadership team.  Using a conservative wage rate of $35 per hour, and estimating that each team member spent one hour prior to each meeting reading the assigned chapter, the total cost to the company for this particular learning effort equaled $6,300 (benefits not included). Now we were about to select a new book and repeat the process.  Given the degree to which we tended to scrutinize other spending proposals of a similar magnitude, the question begged to be asked – was it worth it?

Now one could argue that other than the purchase of the books themselves (a mere $180), the other costs that were involved represented ‘soft' costs.  We would still be paying these people even if they weren't discussing the book, and the reading was often taking place on their own time.  Still, in this day and age of the compressed work week where cries of ‘I don't have enough time' tend to occur more frequently then discussions of the most recent Survivor show at the coffee maker, I had to argue with myself as to whether these costs really were soft costs or not.  I think we could have spent the time more wisely.

Did reviewing the book really make a difference?  What was the likelihood that any of the management team members would actually remember, let alone use, any of the concepts that were discussed?  What do you remember from the last business book you read?  Did anyone have a significant emotional experience during the course of his or her reading efforts that result in a true paradigm change?  After all, wasn't that the intent reading the book in the first place?  I bet the person who suggested the book for reading had such a goal in mind.

In cases similar to this that take place in organizations around the world every day, it is often the case that more damage is done by reading the book than if the time had not been invested at all.  Stress levels rise when people gloss over key sentences that represent changes others in the group would like to see.  Credibility is lost when a leader advocates a book, or a particular section of it, and then fails to act in accordance with the concepts he or she is advocating.  Dissension among the ranks occurs as people discuss this hypocrisy outside of the meeting room (in addition to spending more time and money).  Was it worth it?

Since I would be displaying hypocrisy if I only vented without also offering a solution, here are my thoughts on how we might break this self-destructive cycle of behavior.   Whenever someone suggests that their group read a book, they should also try to be open about why it is important for the group to do so.  As concepts are encountered that conflict with current work practices, the group should strive for a level of dialogue that allows this conflict to be explored in a participative manner.  Finally, the group should identify a few actions that should be taken to implement key ideas that are discovered, and more importantly, agree to follow-up with each other to ensure that these actions were actually taken.

Spending the money to learn is not the issue.  Making good use of the time investment is however.  We learned that ‘time is money' as industrial engineering students, but somewhere along the line we lost our voice and our conviction to challenge instances such as these where time (and in turn money) is being wasted.  If we were purchasing a new piece of packaging equipment or a new computer system, we would not be so silent.  Why are we not speaking up now?

My hope in writing this particular article is that copies of it will find their way into select mailboxes.  While it is likely that no one will ask ‘Who gave me this?' (or better yet, why did you give me this?), it is my hope that someone will be introspective enough to reflect on their own personal practices and consider the above suggestions before they enter into their next group reading event.  Reading books and articles can be worth it if we are willing to have true dialogue around the concepts and suggested actions that they contain.

Six thousand dollars worth of difference can be realized if management behaviors change for the better or if new system changes are identified and implemented.  Six thousand dollars can easily be wasted if we go through the motions, put up a front that we even read the book in the first place, or fail to try to practice those new ideas that we are introduced to.  Worse yet, additional culture damage can occur if reading the book as a group leads to the accentuation of hypocritical behavior that currently exists in the workplace.

It all begins however with a simple question – will it be worth it? 

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