Transcript: Business Readers In Search of Rigor And Relevance

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Interview with David Wan
Recorded at the Yale Publishing Course

For podcast release Monday, August 10, 2015

KENNEALLY: What do readers hire us to do? The editors of one of the world’s most recognized and respected business publications asked themselves just that over five years ago. Answering the question inspired a transformation of the organization and a reinvention of the brand.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. David Wan is the Chief Executive Officer of Harvard Business Publishing. Harvard Business Publishing was founded in 1994 as a not-for-profit wholly-owned subsidiary of Harvard University, reporting into the business school, and among its various operating groups is the Harvard Business Review group.

David Wan spoke today at the Yale Publishing Course on a topic about his own sense of virtual cycle of content – how Harvard Business Publishing drives content from blog to magazine to book, all of it organized around the customer. And welcome to Beyond the Book, David Wan.

WAN: Thank you very much, Chris. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

KENNEALLY: We’re happy you can discuss this with us, because I love that question – what do readers hire us to do? It really does sort of put the onus on the creators to think about their readers in a way that often they get overlooked. And what did that question mean to you as you began to rethink what Harvard Business Publishing was about?

WAN: Well, Chris, thinking back on the original concept of jobs to be hired, which one of our premier authors, Clay Christensen, posed in his framework on strategy and on innovation, it forced us as publishers and editors to really think about a couple of things. One – who is our primary audience – and then the question of what job are they hiring us to do?

So answering the first question, we decided that our primary audience or readers are senior executives or those aspiring to responsibilities of general management, meaning they are starting to take on a P&L responsibility.

So the jobs that they’re hiring us to do is really to, in many ways, present them with what we believe are important ideas in management that they should understand but, more importantly, be able to apply, either to make themselves even more effective as leaders as well as to apply them in their organizations to either move their organizations forward or to sustain success that they’ve already been able to achieve.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, you said that some of this content is a bit like spinach. You sort of have to eat it, but it doesn’t mean it has to taste bad. You can make it taste as appealing and look as good as possible. You’ve done that with the remake of Harvard Business Review particularly. Tell us the thinking that went into that.

WAN: Well, we felt that the magazine needed to have a bit more urgency. We always have focused on the fact that the ideas we publish are very rigorous. They’re either based on extensive research that’s done by a leading academic or a new voice in management education and research or accomplished executives, entrepreneurs and consultants in the field of business and management.

What we then wanted to do is to balance rigor with relevance – not taking away from the rigor but to make sure that what we present is both timely, meaning that they really are important ideas in the context of today’s challenges that leaders in many organizations face, as well as enduring, meaning that those ideas hold up for years to come in terms of how they are applied and what impact they could have on that individual or on their organizations.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, in the digital publishing environment, you can serve that spinach in all sorts of different ways, and this progression from blog to magazine to book is something that really has begun to work very well for you. Tell us how that works. It’s not only portion size but also thinking about the content and the form will drive what is written about.

WAN: Yes. I think what it does is actually help serve both our stakeholders – our readers that I already described – but as well as our contributors, because the content that we develop and serve to our readers are generally all expert written. And so the notion of blog – or now we like to call them more digital articles, because blog is a little more passé – and actually has some negative connotations – the digital articles that we’re talking about are as rigorously edited and vetted as the long form pieces.

But what it does do – and our editor-in-chief, Adi Ignatius actually coined this term and really has been the champion of the process – is that, through our Website, we can, either through our editor-written pieces that are based on interviews and reading of recent research papers or symposia, will work with that researcher – and we’re particularly looking for new ideas from new voices – and we can use a shorter piece on the Website to test the idea with our readers.

We have about five million unique visitors to our Website every month. And that’s a great audience to test whether that idea is relevant to the challenges that our audience is facing.

From there, actually the author gets some useful feedback, because we often get very thoughtful replies and comments through our Website as well as on social media that helps the author either adjust their thinking, maybe do a little more research and enhance and make the idea even more powerful and impactful. And from there, that editor relationship will continue.

And over time, as the idea evolves and more research is done to show its impact and to provide more specifics, that could – not necessarily always does, but could – turn into a longer form piece, either digital or in the magazine. And then, I guess completing the circuit – which occurs occasionally but we don’t actually require it – it could turn into something like a book. Or it could have other types of content forms to help our readers apply the idea or share the idea with their teams.

KENNEALLY: Well, throughout all this, then, you’ve been rethinking and reforming the container, the content. You’ve been working with the contributors, the authors and all of this. How has this affected internally the staff and so forth – the arrangement of people and who they work with? The way you put it in the presentation at the Yale Publishing Course was this distribution of generalists and specialists. And you had a particular set of individuals working for you, and you wanted to shift this. Where were you? And where have you got to?

WAN: Well, I think because, before 2009, we were very siloed – so by the structure – sometimes structure can create specialization. In this case, it did, because we had very specialized editorial folks that covered either long form content for the magazine, shorter digital content – which – for at that time our relatively nascent Website – and then the very specialized area of book acquisition and developmental editing.

So what we were aiming to do – and it’s a journey that we’re continuing to do – is, through a mix of bringing in some new talent as well as helping those who are more specialized gain greater sensibilities on the other types of content forms and begin to actually either create them or help others in terms of helping the author identify opportunities to create, let’s say, an accompanying tool or an assessment or an interactive exhibit – it all helps to drive a number of different types of complements to, let’s say, a longer form piece that again helps us go back to what job we’re hired to do, which is to help our reader not only understand the idea, become engaged with the idea, but most importantly be able to start to apply the idea.

KENNEALLY: And those readers today – you say you have five million unique visitors on the Website – that’s a remarkable number. And it goes well beyond people working in Fortune 500 companies, which one might associate with the Harvard Business Review.

How does it feel to be able to reach an audience that would have been unimaginable 10, 15 years ago – to reach into the general interest reader – because all those things – all those ambitions you have – they’re important to someone who’s trying to rise the corporate ladder, but it’s also just important to anyone interested in the society they live in and understanding the way that organizations work?

WAN: Yeah. And that’s the most exciting and maybe the most rewarding part of a statistic or metric like five million unique visitors. We’re a mission driven organization, and our mission is to improve the practice of management and its impact in a changing world.

And we were created as an organization by a dean who had the vision that he wanted to have a much greater impact on the world of management practice than could be accomplished within the brick and mortar of the classrooms of the Harvard Business School. And in many ways, it’s quite rewarding to know that we are actually living up to that mission and objective.

KENNEALLY: Well, David Wan, Chief Executive Officer of Harvard Business Publishing, good luck with that mission. And thank you for speaking with us on Beyond the Book.

WAN: Thank you, Chris. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs. You can follow us on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our Website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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