Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Gabriel Harp. Gabe leads the cross-functional Digital Products & Software Services team at the MIT Press and serves on the Society for Scholarly Publishing Board of Directors. Before joining the MIT Press he spent many years with Cell Press / Elsevier.
Many of us are surrounded – at least virtually – by an invaluable learning resource: our colleagues.
Industry organizations such as the Society for Scholarly Publishing, AUPresses, and the Council of Science Editors all prioritize professional development. Many companies in scholarly communications and beyond do as well, offering both in-house programs and external training opportunities. And some employers, including my own, have increased their investment in virtual-learning tools since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
To complement these offerings I’d like to share here another model, one that is lightweight and versatile enough that just about any organization could adopt it. When we developed the concept at Cell Press during my time there, we called it “Master Classes.” The premise was simple: everybody at the company had a skill that they could share with others. The goal was equally simple: that every attendee would leave a session having learned at least one skill that they could put to use in their daily work. More broadly, the program aimed to increase the overall skill base of the organization.
Although these Master Classes tended to focus on technical skills – HTML, Excel, Outlook – they also included more conceptual topics such as the principles of image composition and using diplomacy in written communications.
Countless resources exist to cover these very topics, but there is something about learning from somebody you know, in a context that you know, that helps make the lessons stick. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of looking over somebody’s shoulder – physically or virtually – and saying, “Hey, how did you do that?!” Managers and teams often provide such moments of impromptu learning, but this model seeks to extend that effect across an entire organization. Moreover, with this approach we provide a low-pressure, informal setting that helps people become more comfortable with the skill of preparing and giving presentations.
At the MIT Press we’ve created a similar program, which we call the Skill Exchange. The basic approach looks like this:
- We aim for 4-6 sessions/year
- Each is 45 minutes, a combination of presenting and Q&A
- We record the sessions and post the recordings, as well as any related materials, on our internal wiki
- Sessions are informal, open to all, and entirely voluntary
This format (as well as the framing of an Exchange, rather than a Master Class) creates space for attendees to ask questions and make suggestions of their own; sometimes, the dialog in a session will give rise to a future session. In the 18 months since inception, colleagues have presented on running effective meetings, search engine optimization, Airtable (a personal favorite), and more. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we realized that we could use the Skill Exchange program to support one another, and we held a pandemic series on Slack, Zoom, and virtual-working best practices (which was the basis for my first Scholarly Kitchen piece).
My theory is that there is an element of local knowledge at work here. Despite the abundance of other resources, people enjoy learning about skills and tools in the context of their own working environments. A demonstration of Excel that uses data from an internal system is more relatable than one that uses a generic example. And yet, those other resources are invaluable too, especially given the diversity of learning styles that exist. That is why I view this model as complementary, and I encourage all of us to think about the many different ways in which we can foster learning and professional development within and across our organizations.
Another benefit is the minimal overhead associated with a program such as this. It should require no additional cost beyond the time of the individual or small group who steer the program (about 2-3 hours per month, depending on session frequency): to recruit presenters and solicit ideas, to schedule and host the sessions, and to gather feedback about how to improve the program. I have found that perhaps the biggest challenge is convincing colleagues that they do have something worth sharing, and then supporting them in overcoming any potential hesitance about presenting. And when they do so, we see colleagues from all departments coming together in a shared space to learn. This builds camaraderie, connection, and culture – which is all the more important as we transition toward a paradigm of distributed workforces.
Is your organization taking a similar approach? Please share!
On a final note, I would like to acknowledge former MIT Press colleague Scott DeLugan for first kicking off the idea of the Skill Exchange.