Transforming Harvard Business Review

Originally published with Barry Libert in LinkedIn after Harvard Business declined to publish the article and invited us to publish it elsewhere.

From the start of the digital revolution, Harvard Business Review has shone a spotlight on the need for every organization to “reinvent your business before it’s too late.” But what happens when a mirror is held up on this most important institution? As a thought provoking experiment, we asked ourselves how HBR might transform itself using today’s digital strategies for value creation. We believe the exercise is instructive for anyone exploring their own digital reinvention. (Note that this article reflects our opinion only). 

Based on our experience with leaders and boards, digital reinvention is about knowing what to keep and what to change. One’s core purpose and organizational “DNA” don’t change, but rather are the foundation of evolution and expression. It is the answer to Ted Leavitt’s famous question, “What business are you really in?” For Harvard Business Publishing, this is its mission “to improve the practice of management in a changing world” and the DNA of learning, leadership and impact inherited from its parent, Harvard Business School.

Around this core purpose and DNA, reinvention requires a change in core beliefs. In particular, transformation requires three parallel shifts in:

  1. Mental models to “unlearn” old ways of thinking
  2. Business models to enable exponential value creation,
  3. Measurement models to align actions with outcomes.

Let’s look at each one as it applies to Harvard Business. The clue to the existing mental model is right in the name: Harvard Business Publishing. By definition, publishing is about “disseminating information.” Publishers source content from authors, broadcast that content through channels, and monetize that content with advertising, subscriptions, and licensing fees. The mental model of publishing is a one-way pipe through which one distributes content.

In contrast, companies like Airbnb and Facebook are multi-sided platforms. They think of themselves as matchmakers and technology companies, not publishers and media companies. But if Airbnb is a platform for rooms, Uber for rides, and OpenTable for reservations, what kind of platform would Harvard Business be? The answer, we suggest, is already on the web site: “Harvard Business Publishing is able to influence real-world change by maximizing the reach and impact of its essential offering—ideas.” So the shift in mental model is from a one-way channel for distributing content to a multi-sided platform for connecting people to ideas. 

The second step is to look at how one’s mental model drives its business model, i.e. how it spends and makes money. In the case of HBP, it spends money on producing its own exclusive content through writing, editing, printing and digital distribution. It makes money selling that intellectual property through subscriptions, book sales, case studies and courses. This business model aligns with a publisher’s mental model of distributing proprietary content through a one-way pipe. 

By contrast, platforms make money through connections and relationships rather than production and distribution. The goal is to unleash a network effect. Content is co-created with participants and money is often made through matchmaking and usage of the platform. For example, Apple’s AppStore connects developers and users, taking a commission on downloads and in-app sales. In addition, platforms focus on enabling others to create value, like YouTube for its creators or Lyft for its drivers. For Harvard Business, a platform based business model means monetizing connections between people and ideas and the value they create, rather than charging people for the consumption of content containing ideas.   

The third leg of the reinvention stool is an organization’s measurement model. All organizations measure what they value (mental model), and value what they measure (business model). In a reinvention, the measurement model provides vital feedback on how well the organization is aligning its KPIs, compensation and capital allocation to the new mental and business model.

Today, Harvard Business Publishing measures things like size of audience (e.g. subscribers) and consumption of content (e.g. page views, book sales and downloads). But ultimately what Harvard Business Press cares most about, as it says itself, is “maximizing the reach and impact of its … ideas.” As a publisher, subscriptions and page views are only a partial proxy for impact. The true measure of success is impact – how well Harvard Business improves the practices of management. Digital business models enable far more personalized and immediate feedback on how well a company is not only generating profits, but fulfilling its purpose. The shift in measurement model is therefore from measuring distribution and content consumption to measuring impact and value creation.

So what might this look like for Harvard Business? Every platform business is built on a network and community. We believe there are three ways a platform approach could increase the impact of ideas on the practice of management and improve the world of business.

  1. Source better ideas from its network 
  2. Enable managers to find more relevant ideas
  3. Help organizations put ideas into practice

The following are some of our initial ideas, designed to spark conversation. The common themes are leveraging the unrivaled network of Harvard Business by transforming consumers into co-creators, authors into collaborators, audiences into communities, and information into insight.

  • Data VisibilityExpose data back to the network so that creators and managers can see which ideas are the most useful. Imagine Amazon without product reviews or eBay without seller ratings. Today on HBR, there is no way to know which content is the most popular in page views or social media coverage, or which content is merely interesting and which ones have actually changed the practice of management.
  • Crowdsourcing: Enable the network to vote on desired topics and proposed ideas. Today, idea generation and content creation are combined. Imagine a Reddit like feature in which the community votes potential ideas up or down. HBR authors could then use that ranking as a way to prioritize and shape their articles. Or consider a feature in which people could ask questions and post annotations anywhere in the article, creating a Talmud-like commentary around the idea.
  • Social Networking: Make it easier for readers to take ideas back to their teams for exploration and evaluation. Today, the only option is to send a link or PDF of an article around to one’s team. But this doesn’t provide the right environment for questions and discussion. Imagine a mobile app that created a mini-course around an article idea, or else linkages to internal social networks like Slack. These apps and social spaces could either be paid for by readers as a premium service or else sponsored by advertisers.
  • Virtual Storefronts: Make it easier for authors to showcase their thinking and for readers to explore a set of ideas more deeply. Today, each article is separate and clicking on an author’s name only pulls up a chronological list of their articles. Imagine a virtual storefront like on Etsy or Amazon in which an author can organize their articles and provide additional resources. HBR could take a percentage of content or services sold through the storefront, like an App Store.
  • Machine Learning: Perhaps the most transformative change would be using machine learning to create more personalized experiences for readers. The engine would learn which authors, topics and type of content were of greatest value to readers, and make personalized recommendations accordingly. Think of Netflix, Pandora and Amazon as examples of this kind of recommendations engine.

Note that these ideas don’t need to replace the existing core business, at least not right away. They could be tested in a new kind of incubator for ideas, a kind of YCombinator for “idea practitioners.” It would require an ambidexterity between the publishing business of today and the platform business of the future. But this challenge is something every organization faces, and we suspect that Harvard’s own experience would enhance its ability to support others on their digital journeys. 

We don’t know if HBR is already thinking about some of these ideas, finds them heretical, or is about to launch something similar. But as fans of the institution and believers in the mission of Harvard Business, we would be remiss if we didn’t hold up the mirror and issue the warning that if they don’t do it, someone else will. Regardless, we hope that this thought experiment is helpful for readers to see how they too can rethink their businesses.