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In the second episode of The History Factory Podcast, CEO Jason Dressel sits down with Amy Bernstein, editor of Harvard Business Review. They discuss HBR’s 100 years of thought leadership, including its origin story as a quarterly magazine and its growth into the multimedia giant it is today. Facilitating worldwide discussions among the biggest business leaders, HBR has published some of the most influential ideas in the history of modern business—including scientific management, disruptive innovation and emotional intelligence—and transformed how companies are run. The pair also dive into HBR’s book, “HBR at 100,” which contains the publication’s most influential articles from the past 100 years, and talk about what went into curating the selection and how the publication’s focus has evolved to serve  an increasingly complicated world and global audience.

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Jason Dressel: Welcome to The History Factory Podcast. On this show, we get behind the scenes of the Harvard Business Review with its editor, Amy Bernstein. The Harvard Business Review is a mainstay of business media. You may be a subscriber, you may be an avid reader and follower, or perhaps you’re a subscriber or nonsubscriber who occasionally reads an article that catches your attention, shows up in your feed or someone sends you. However you engage with HBR, if it’s part of your content ecosystem, if you’re like me, it’s just kind of an omnipresent fixture or media institution. And I’ll be honest, I’m not one of those that devours HBR when a new issue of the bimonthly magazine comes out. But I really enjoy HBR, and I read at least a few articles every week on the app. Certainly I value Harvard Business Review, and it’s one of a few business media resources that I’ve happily subscribed to for years.

Harvard Business Review just reached 100 years technically last year, and some of their content around this milestone caught my attention, because when you’re in my line of work, these kinds of things catch your attention. I noticed they were having a centennial gala in New York this spring, and I decided to attend, and it was a lot of fun. It was a lovely event, as you might expect, that really exceeded my expectations in terms of the balance of substance with really elegant celebration, and it was interesting to learn a little bit more about the organization itself. The program had really interesting leaders and thinkers and performers. Viola Davis was part of the program. One of the takeaways was that HBR offers more than I realized as part of its platform, including that it puts on events pretty regularly, and I’d very much like to attend one in the future.

The event also included this fun experience where, at the end of the evening, they had set up a reception area as a bookstore with many of the landmark books from Harvard Publishing, and one of them was “HBR at 100: The Most Influential and Innovative Articles from Harvard Business Review’s First Century.” It’s impressive. It’s 400-plus pages of incredible articles. It’s available, by the way, in the store on HBR’s site and elsewhere, although I suspect Amy would want you to purchase it from HBR, so I’ll leave it at that. But it was an impressively executed centennial program with various content the HBR team produced, as well as this great event in New York, and as I read some of the articles in this awesome book, I thought about the process that must have gone into creating this and just the amount of content that HBR produces on a regular basis. And I thought I’d like to learn more about that, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk more with Amy Bernstein, the editor of Harvard Business Review, who oversees the magazine and its team of editors. She’s also the vice president and executive editorial director for Harvard Business Publishing, responsible for the editorial strategy and content development of the learning and educator assets for its corporate learning and higher education businesses. Without further ado, here’s my conversation about Harvard Business Review with Amy Bernstein. Amy, thanks so much for joining us, and happy 100 to Harvard Business Review.

Amy Bernstein: Thank you. Thank you so much.

JD: First, I really enjoyed attending the gala and centennial event that you all had in New York. I think, as I said recently, it was a perfect of blend of celebration and substance. It was just a really enjoyable event. Before we talk more about where you are today and where you’re going, what do you know of the origin story of Harvard Business Review? I was actually surprised to discover that it’s as old as it is. I always kind of envisioned it as—I expected it to be a post-World War II publication, so I was surprised when I initially saw that it’s been around as long as it’s been. What do you know of how HBR came to be?

AB: Well, you know, I got to write an essay on the occasion of our 100th anniversary. So I learned a lot, and some of it did surprise me. What I know is that it launched in October 1922, not long after the founding of Harvard Business School, so that’s not a coincidence. The very first essay by then-Dean of Harvard Business School Wallace Donham sort of laid out the mission, and he said that the mission was to obtain a proper theory of business, and unless business obtained this proper theory, it would continue to be, and I’m quoting, “unsystematic, haphazard, and for many men”—note “men”—“a pathetic gamble.” So it started as a mission-driven publication, the product of Harvard Business School, and much of that remains the case today.

JD: When it started, it was a quarterly, right?

AB: It was a quarterly.

JD: Yeah.

AB: It was aimed at what people called practitioners, so business leaders, but it was published by a university. It was kind of a unique idea. I was talking to a professor at another business school, not Harvard Business School, who kind of shook his head and said that the most brilliant idea Harvard Business School ever had was to put this out there. It has continued to evolve for 100 years and has kind of expanded its scope and its concept of who we serve, and I think that our success is kind of a testament to this continuing thirst to understand how the world works.

JD: How has that evolved? Do you have any familiarity with the editorial focus of the first decade or two?

AB: Oh, yeah. I mean, the first few years were all about the kind of dry—well, I shouldn’t say dry, because they’re passionately interesting to people who are passionately interested, but the operations of business. It was accounting and supply chains and the stuff that really is the nuts and bolts, the blocking and tackling, of making business, the work of creating and capturing value and delivering value. So the subject matter started there. There wasn’t much in the way of management thinking. Of course, there was Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, the motion expert, the guy with the stopwatch who said, “Yeah, you can pack those boxes faster if you eliminate this particular action.” The other thing that’s changed a lot is the generally accepted idea of who a business leader is. Back in October 1922, a business leader was likely a white man—probably American, right? Today we think of our readers and our audience as people at every stage of their career, every gender, every race and in every part of the world. Most of the visitors to our website come from outside the United States, which is a really important thing for us to keep in mind as we think about the content we post there.

JD: That’s a great point. When did that shift to a more international audience take place? Has that been more in the last 25–30 years, would you say?

AB: Yeah. We have about nine or 10 publishing partners who were originally our magazine publishing partners across the globe, so in all the major markets of Europe and Asia, non-English speaking. And then as we launched a site and as the center of gravity of our operations moved more and more toward digital, of course, our audience became more and more global.

JD: I’m glad you mentioned that, Amy, because that was a question I had. When folks think of Harvard Business Review, they think of substantive longform content. One of the things that I’ve noticed just as a reader is that there’s been this shift—not away from that, but really complementing those longer forms of content with shorter forms of content that are more visual. You obviously have a lot more content products in terms of webinars and all these things that you’re doing, like all organizations, working across multiple platforms and formats. I’m curious: What’s that process been like for the organization? Have there been key challenges, and what have been some of the successes and lessons learned as the magazine has made that shift?

AB: Well, first of all, we no longer think of HBR as the magazine.

JD: As I said it, I was like, “Oh.”

AB: I mean, come on, it’s 2023. So the magazine is but one expression of HBR. Our website at is probably our most important showcase for the ideas that we develop and put out in the world in many different forms, as you said. One idea can take any number of forms, and usually the really good ones do. Maybe they’re a 5,000-word article; maybe they’re a 50,000-word book—we also have a pretty lively book publishing operation, HBR Press. But they can be shorter articles. You can bite off pieces of an idea and explore them in 800-word videos, TikToks, webinars, podcasts, newsletters or live events, as you yourself experienced. There are any number of ways for us to bring the best ideas in business and management to the people we serve.

JD: Have you found any unique challenges as part of that transition?

AB:You know, when I joined the company 11 and a half years ago, I would say the shift from HBR as a magazine to HBR as a multiplatform offering wasn’t always easy. For some people, it took a lot of getting used to. We had to hire people with, to us, new skills and new kinds of expertise, and I believe now we have hit a point where we are really one big team. There’s no sense that a 5,000-word article is somehow more important than a video. They’re just different, and we’re much more concerned with the quality of the work we develop and its impact on the people we serve.

JD: Back to the question around the evolution of content and editorial: Based on some of the reading I did, and as you noted, the early editorial focus of HBR was very—well, we’ll call it operational now, as you’d expect, right? It really is a great microcosm of the evolution of business over the last 100 years as the whole concept of business has broadened and diversified, as you noted. I think one of the interesting themes in business that’s probably been going on for half a century now has been this sort of distinction of the “soft” versus “hard” stuff and the importance of culture, and this has been an ongoing theme. When we were at the event, one of the things that came up, obviously, was the shift in purpose that the Business Roundtable made in 2019.

AB: Right.

JD: And I’m curious: How has this shift in society, in business, changed the editorial focus of HBR?

AB: Well, it’s challenged us to address the urgent needs of our audience. We can’t sit in an ivory tower and edit from our inbox. We have to be alive to the kinds of struggles that our readers and our audience are dealing with every single day. The last few years were a perfect example of this. We have a pandemic. We have a racial reckoning. We have increasing nativism, which makes supply chains harder to manage. We have a war in Europe. We have a recession, which is always like a month away. There’s this looming recession. So we’re very attuned to the nature of organizational leadership and management today, which really feels a little bit like jumping from crisis to crisis. And the other thing that has happened is that the way organizations deliver value has changed dramatically. We’ve gone from an industrial world to knowledge—obviously I’m using very broad strokes—and we’ve gone from org structures that were once very hierarchical and almost mechanistic to much more networked structures where your teammates may not even be employed by your company, and where you have to lead even when you don’t have formal authority, and where influence counts a lot, and where you really don’t, as a leader, say, “Because I said so.” You’re trying to inspire and motivate rather than to rule by diktat. That is the world in which our audience is operating, and we are trying to equip them to understand how it works and to do what they do better.

JD: You mentioned this earlier, but I want to circle back to it. It’s easy to take success for granted, and Harvard Business Review has been such a cornerstone of business thought leadership. What do you think has been the staying power? I mean, it’s not easy to stay relevant for 100 years. I think, to your point, one could easily imagine an academic publication functioning from that ivory tower and becoming irrelevant. What have been the keys to the longevity, success and ability of the organization to adapt?

AB: Such a good question. I think part of it is that, you know, before I came to work at Harvard Business Review, I had this idea of HBR as kind of a bastion of arrogance—that it was a bunch of guys sitting around smoking pipes and telling the world how it should operate. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We do practice what we preach with the ideas that we identify. It’s really, really important that we develop and publish our ideas that we follow, and there’s an essential humility about most of the people who are calling the shots in this organization. We know we don’t know everything. We know we are serving others. We know who we are serving, and we know that their worlds are very, very challenging, and so there’s a lot of care that goes into it. We don’t get it right all the time, and we own when we don’t get it right. But there’s a core of integrity here, and we measure our success in many ways. We look at newsstands; we look at subscription numbers. We look at how many people visit our website and download our articles. We look at impact. We look at how the ideas enter the thought stream, if you will, of leadership and how they are having an impact on the people who we are trying to serve. So I would say that our agenda is pretty pure.

JD: What do you think is one of the most misunderstood perceptions of Harvard Business Review? Is it that it’s a bunch of dudes with pipes?

AB: Well, that was my misperception.

JD: Or that it’s a magazine?

AB: Oh, well, that’s certainly another one. I think that we have done a really good job of reaching people where they are, as they say. People know HBR. They know our newsletters. They know our management. Our tip of the day—sometimes it arrives in their inbox; sometimes it talks to them out of their Alexa. We have been very, very innovative, and we have a high tolerance for failure in our innovation, because we also have a process for learning from it. So I don’t know. I think maybe one idea is that it’s for people sitting in the C-suite. Do people still think that? Certainly. We’re trying to speak to those folks and to help them just as much. HBR is trying to help people in their first jobs, people trying to make that all-important leap from individual contributor to manager. These are very, very difficult transitions to make, and we want to help our readers, our audience, through those transitions. Also, that we’re really focused on the 40,000-foot view and the hard stuff—yeah, sure. Strategy, operations, innovation: absolutely our wheelhouse. But equally, matters we’ve written a lot about—we’ve published a lot about mental health. We’ve published a lot about how you deal with the stress of being a career person today. We have created product lines that serve specific portions of our audience. So we have “Women at Work” for, you guessed it, women. We have a set for early career professionals. We’re just always trying to figure out what needs we’re not meeting and find a way to meet them.

JD: I think that was really reflected in the event. One of the things that I was a bit surprised by was the diversity of thought that was reflected in a short program over the course of a few hours on a lovely afternoon in New York—but also, to your point, how the theme of love came up.

AB: Yeah.

JD: That day, Marcus Buckingham was the first speaker, and he managed to run through his entire book Love and Work in like 15 minutes. But it was interesting—from Marcus to Viola Davis to even the speakers in the evening who were recognizing their mentors, who were being honored as some of the contributors, it was interesting how that theme of love was integrated through the day itself.

AB:Yeah. You know, we commented about that ourselves, and I guess we were all a little surprised by that.

JD: Yeah, I was for sure. I have to ask: There’s so much content, and you all put together this lovely book, “HBR at 100,” which had like 30 of your most influential articles. Any war stories about that process? How easy was that to do?

AB: Oh my God. We have 100 years’ worth of articles, so imagine trying to pick just a few. Really, really hard. And I was really peripheral to it. That’s a publication of HBR Press, and the editors put that together—really, really killed themselves doing that. We were trying to figure out how we do the best job representing HBR and also serving the readers who are going to buy this book and, we hope, kind of sit with it and read it, not front to back, but pick an article at a time and peruse and absorb. Adi Ignatius, the editor-in-chief, my boss—he noticed in his intro to the book that we have a recency bias.

JD: Yeah.

AB: It’s not because all the good ideas or mostly good ideas came in the last couple of decades—far from it. But the ones that are really pertinent tend to be a little bit more recent, because they’re contextualized to a world we can relate to. As part of that, as the world has become more complicated, as trade has become more global, as supply chains have become more global, as social issues have risen to the fore as the duty of the organization or the corporation, as our concept of that has evolved from serving the shareholder to serving the stakeholder—and there are no two people who agree on what that means, right? We still measure our success in terms of impact, and that’s what we wanted with this collection.

JD: Yeah. I was curious what the criteria might have been for how that process could take place, because I can appreciate how challenging that was. One of the first things given the work we do that I was really interested in was what that sort of mix was going to be in terms of content from the last 25, 50 or 75 years.

AB: Oh my gosh.

AB: So, you know, we knew which articles were the real landmarks. It’s Peter Drucker’s “Managing Oneself,” the father of management, as he’s known. Mike Porter’s 1979 article “How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy”: That’s where he introduced the five forces to the practitioner readership. Clay Christensen’s “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,” where he introduced his signature concept, which was disruptive innovation, as most of your listeners will know, and that you know, all the way up to W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s article “Blue Ocean Strategy.” These are concepts that are taught and cited and that leaders and managers use by name. It shapes business and organizational thinking today. Those ideas, you know, they were in—we didn’t write them. But you know what statues are around the four guys on Mount Rushmore, right? So that’s what there was a little bit of debate about—that we want this one representing that idea, so there was a lot of debate.

JD: I can imagine. Well, it was a blast. And I’m just geeking out about how much I enjoyed the event, but after the event, you walk back out into the lobby, the light and Lincoln Center, and then you guys had set up this pop-up bookstore, and I was like a kid in a candy store. So it was a lot of fun, and just—congratulations on it.

AB: I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

JD: What other initiatives might our listeners be curious to know about? I mean, for instance, as someone who reads HBR pretty regularly, both online and in other formats, I didn’t realize that you all do events, quite frankly. Any new initiatives that you would want people to know about?

AB: Well, we’re talking about our next events and our events strategy. I mean, that one was such a success. We do virtual events, and we have one planned—I’m not exactly sure when. I think it’s in a couple of months, but stay tuned. Follow us on social—follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, all the socials, because we put it out there. The virtual events are really well done and, of course, super easy. You can attend from your living room. And then we’re always experimenting with other kinds of formats—online in particular, but we’ll do more live.

JD: It’s awesome. Cool. Amy, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations again, and happy 100 to the Harvard Business Review. Thanks so much for everything you and your team are doing for us practitioners. We really appreciate it.

AB: Well, thanks. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this. You know, it’s one of my favorite topics.

JD: Thank you. Thank you again to Amy Bernstein, the editor of the Harvard Business Review. Pretty cool, right? Big job she has over there. That’s going to wrap up this episode of The History Factory Podcast at the intersection of business and history. Thanks for listening. I’m Jason Dressel. Be well.


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