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Featured case: Tradition and Transition at
the Harvard Business Review

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The case

Who – the protagonists

David Wan, CEO of HBS Publishing, and Adi Ignatius, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Business Review, a career journalist whose previous work focused mainly outside business and management topics. He had previously worked for The Wall Street Journal and Time.

Wallace B DonhamWhat?

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) was launched in the 1920s by the Dean of Harvard Business School (HBS), Wallace B. Donham and some of his fellow professors. From the beginning, it was not intended as a ‘school paper’. HBS professors would always make a significant author contribution, but the majority of contributors would be business executives, government officials, and academics from other institutions.

Why?David Wan

David Wan became the CEO of HBS Publishing in July 2002 and realised there were challenges ahead for HBS Publishing generally and HBR in particular. The editorial integrity of the publication had come into question and advertising revenues were falling. There was increasing competition from blogs and other online media outlets and HBR also had a smaller circulation based than, for example, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal.

‘HBR needed to regain its respect and gravitas,’ said David. And he believed that Adi Ignatius would fit the bill as new Editor-in-Chief of HBR and be able to take on these tricky challenges.

When?Harvard Business Review

The Harvard Business Review was founded in 1922, 14 years after Harvard Business School was established.


HBR is based in Watertown, Massachusetts, US. Its English-language version is distributed worldwide and there are licensed translations in numerous languages.

Key quote

‘This is really the case in my life where I feel a little like Steve Jobs: Damn what the focus groups say. Damn what the consultants say. I really think the cover design needs to change to create a more modern print experience.’ Adi Ignatius

What next?

A full redesign process could take nine months or more. Alternatively, Adi could task the internal design team to prepare a new cover concept immediately, ready for the first edition of the new year. Would such a move inspire HBR staff to think about the potential for innovation and change within the pages of the magazine? Or would there be too much resistance to overcome?

Interested in finding out more?

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Tradition and Transition at the Harvard Business Review
Ref SCG-516
Teaching note
Ref SCG-816

The author

Jeremy B. Dann

Jeremy explains how he met the CEO of Harvard Business Publishing and why unconventional thinkers can take inspiration from this case.

Building a dialogue

David Wan, the CEO of Harvard Business Publishing for over a decade, always makes the rounds with his regional sales reps when they visit business schools all over the country. I knew David was an executive with HBP, but it took a while to dawn on me that he was the CEO! 

Competitive landscape

During our conversations, David and I began to zero in on how Adi Ignatius and his team at the Harvard Business Review dealt with changes in technology, readership and the general competitive landscape.  Of course, it’s interesting as a media company strategy story, but I also wanted to illustrate the techniques of intrapreneurship that the early champions of modernisation used to set up HBR for a new era of growth.

Staying relevantHBR

Your organisational capabilities in one era of competition can become your disabilities in the next era of competition. One of HBR’s strengths is the ability to shepherd seminal long-form thought pieces through a multi-month development process to create about ten articles per issue.

Those articles are just as critical to management thinking today as they were 50 years ago, but now there’s also a huge layer of shorter, less polished business content out there. In HBR’s case, they had to evolve the notions of quality and impact to make sure their brand was relevant across this much bigger universe of business content.

press releaseEmotionally engaged

I view case development in large part as a creative writing exercise.  Readers will retain more of the story and the lessons – both in class as they discuss the case and in years to come – if they are not just intellectually engaged, but also emotionally engaged on some level. Developing characters – not just placeholder talking heads – within a case is critical to this. David got a fantastic opportunity to take the reins of an incredibly prestigious organisation – but as he was doing so, he was learning the scope of the internal leadership scandal that threatened HBR’s credibility. The reader can feel the difficulty of those early days.


Adi had a very different background to the types of folks who run most comparable journals—and some very non-traditional approaches. For example, he explained a major decision to his staff through a rap at the HBR holiday party!  Such details go a long way in defining a ‘character’ within the case.  Maybe some unconventional thinkers out there will see that some of their instincts and unusual approaches do indeed have a place in the world of business.

About the author

Jeremy B. Dann is a Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation with the Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC Marshall School of Business, Los Angeles.

e jeremy.dann@marshall.usc.edu


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