Friday, December 3, 2010

More on Magazines: Once and Future Greatness

And while I'm on the subject of magazines . . .
Can anyone enlighten me as to the current version of the Harvard Business Review, my old publication?
Take a look at the December, 2010 issue for a moment and you'll see what has me scratching my head.
The cover, to begin with: years ago, Fast Company featured an award-winning cover designed by the brilliant Patrick Mitchell to promote Tom Peters' "Brand Called You" article. Now comes HBR with its "brand-called-you-lite" version of that cover. Only it's all over the place. Too many words (Social Media and the New Rules of Branding--Spotlight Page 61). Too little focus. No real impact.
Which could be said of the whole issue, and, for the most part, most issues of HBR in its new manifestation.
It's been a while since the powers that be handed the reins to Adi Ignatius and, frankly, it's still hard to tell what the "theory of the case" is for the new HBR.
Back in the old days, under the leadership of Ted Levitt, HBR had a purpose: stir up debate, challenge conventional wisdom, spark conversation, be provocative.
Ted always said that HBR was a magazine written by people who can't write for people who don't read. His mission was to make it both easier to read, and ultimately, necessary to read if you wanted to be part of the conversation about where business and management were going.
He respected the HBS credential, but didn't let it get in the way of kicking up controversy where ever and when ever he could.
He wanted to exploit the benefits of HBR being a hybrid: part academic, part journalistic. The academic credential gave HBR cover when Ted wanted to do something dramatic, like find a way to get Robert Redford in the magazine on his efforts to negotiate environmental truces out West, or feature Felice Schwartz's memorable essay on the real differences between men and women in the workplace. And the nod in the direction of journalism made sure that even the most academic treatment was readable and accessible--that professors were challenged to make an argument and present a strongly reasoned point of view, not just go through the motions.
If Ted found the way to have the best of both worlds by combining academic respectability with journalistic freshness, the new HBR manages to find the worst of both worlds, somehow.
Yes, the piece by Tom Hout and Pankaj Ghemawat falls squarely in the tradition of the good old days. But most of the rest of the issue not only isn't need to know--it isn't even nice to know.
The cover package on social media is at best a mish-mosh; the piece on Robert McNamara as a manager manages to recite a litany of historical facts without ever arriving at an important point; and the look and feel of this new HBR is as chopped up and unfocused as the editorial product the design is supposed to embody. Of course, it's hard to do great design when the theory of the editorial product is so thoroughly obscured.
Part of the problem may be frequency.
In the old days, HBR came out 6 times a year. That meant every issue was carefully developed and every piece was nurtured and valued. Now that HBR is a monthly proposition, the pressure is on the editors to generate excellent editorial content that respects the magazine's academic credential and also breaks new ground in bringing to the fore important themes in business and management. Tough to do, especially if you take seriously the academic part of the equation.
But something else is missing: a clear definition of HBR's role and responsibility today.
With so much to argue and work on in the world of business (like the points raised by Hout and Ghemawat) you'd think HBR would have its hands full.
What is the right strategy for dealing with the nation's--and the world's--economic crisis?
What should we make of Wall Street and the culture of money?
Do we need a whole new theory of the MBA?
What model of capitalism is emerging to take us into the future, and where can we find traces of it?
Are there limits to the promise of entrepreneurship? What is the value of a back-to-basics approach to business and competition?
Is CSR a thing of the past? And if so, what's the thing of the future?
Maybe it's too soon.
Maybe the new regime will get its arms around the hybrid nature of HBR that has always been part of the package.
At a time when the issues are critical, when change is relentless, and there's more room than ever for fruitful debate, a healthy and vibrant HBR could provide important relief from the business-celebrity combination that dominates so much of the rest of business journalism.
Here's hoping!

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb