What the Heck is Going on at Harvard Business Review?

What the Heck is Going on at Harvard Business Review?

Recently, a colleague forwarded me an HBR management “Tip of the Day” Entitled “Ask for Feedback … from Your Kids.” The article contains sage advice such as setting a specific time and place for the conversation, reassuring your kids that you’re listening with an open mind, and managing your emotions so you’re not tempted to react defensively. The email promoting the article notes that this all may sound a little silly.

It does. Because it is.

As my colleague noted, she has no interest in her two small kids’ opinions unless they are about what they want for dinner and, even then, not so much. I’d add that, in general, if the opposites of proffered advice make no sense (e.g., don’t set a time, don’t listen, react defensively), then the advice is worthless because any reasonably sensible person would follow it anyway.

While this may be one of the silliest articles HBR has published lately, it fits into a trend at HBR that’s been going on for some time: writing about people issues to the exclusion of just about everything else. As I write this, of the online front-page articles today, 10 of 11 are about managing oneself or one’s team. When I looked at articles on the online front page one day late last year, seven of nine were. But on the corresponding day two years earlier, only three of 12 were about self- or staff management. In that edition, there were articles on national competitiveness (and how countries compare), innovation, culture and succession at Nike, risk management (and what led to the 2008 financial crisis), company productivity (and the roles of technology, trade and labor), and digital transformation (in particular, the board directors you need to do it well).

These examples are just snapshots. But this is a blog post, not a research study, and I have been watching this unfold for a couple of years.

We care about what HBR publishes. Over the last 10 years, my colleagues and I have helped clients publish dozens of articles there on topics from AI in marketing to diversity on the board. Our clients consider publishing articles in HBR important to their stature and business. But it has become much more difficult over the last two years to interest the editors in much other than people issues.

HBR’s guidelines for authors say they cover a wide range of topics, including strategy, leadership, organizational change, negotiations, operations, innovation, decision making, marketing, finance, work-life balance, and managing teams. The guidelines haven’t changed in the last two years, but they no longer seem to reflect editorial reality.

HBR has long been the preeminent journal for articles about corporate strategy and operations. It has always published articles about managing oneself and one’s people, too. Peter Drucker’s 2015 article on managing oneself is a classic. But in moving to 90% focus on managing oneself and one’s staff, rather than strategic and operational issues that arise when one runs a business (not a sheltered workshop or commune), HBR is failing to provide the advice that corporate leaders and managers need, and for which they have traditionally turned to HBR.

Also, HBR seems to have lowered its standards to accommodate more of this sort of material. Its submission guidelines state: “You must know a lot about the subject you’re writing about.” In our experience, that has always been understood. Indeed, it is the first question we ask our presumptive authors: What do you know about this issue that’s different from everyone else and how do you know it? But while the author of the article about asking for feedback from one’s kids is apparently an accomplished salesperson, it is not clear that he has deep expertise in feedback, psychology, or kids, other than his own.

There are other places authors can publish. According to Alexa (the SEO tool, not the voice-activated internet device), similarly well-read sites include Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur, and McKinsey. Inc.com and McKinsey do not take submissions, but Fast Company and Entrepreneur do. And there are others such as Forbes and Sloan Management Review, as well as more focused publications such as Life Science Leader, HR Executive and Wired. All of these have their areas of focus and specific restrictions; Forbes for instance no longer accepts one-off submissions. But business experts who want to publish articles about business, not their children, have options. As do readers who want their advice.

I think HBR is leaving a gap in the market. There is not another business journal that has enjoyed as strong a reputation for broad, top-quality business writing. Of course, HBR’s editors and publisher are free to take any editorial direction they like, but HBR’s Alexa rank since June is down from about 1,600 to 2,100. There are lots of factors that might affect that, and I can only see a part of the elephant, but that probably isn’t good. And, given the change in editorial focus, HBR’s remaining audience might be lower down the corporate ladder. Most senior managers have already sorted out how to manage conflict and balance their professional and work lives. Or they haven’t. In either case, they are more likely to want to know how to cope with economic uncertainty or protect against cyberattacks.

A few days ago, I got an email from McKinsey promoting an article called “How six companies are using technology and data to transform themselves.” It’s very good. About the same time, a colleague sent me an HBR Tip of the Day email promoting an article about how to get more sleep. He headed it “More baby food from HBR.”

When some of the best editors I know are ridiculing HBR, something is wrong.

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