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50 Years of Harvard Business Review Reveals the Past and Future of Business

by Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

future ball imageAny search for particularly prestigious and influential management publications will quickly lead to Harvard Business Review (HBR). HBR’s magazine recently surpassed 300,000 in circulation, an all-time high for the publication and a 10 percent increase over the preceding six months. Its website has been recognized as the top website for CEOs, senior executives, and entrepreneurs, and its Twitter account @HarvardBiz currently has over 5.3 million followers. Long a forum and source for leading-edge thinking on an extensive range of business topics, HBR’s credibility and impact on business leaders is based in part on its lengthy publication history, extending back to 1922.

HBR’s lengthy duration and its consistent emphasis on contemporary workplace issues also combine to make it exceptionally well-suited as a reliable source for spotting long-term business trends. Here I will summarize key such trends across a 50-year time span, based on a new two-part analysis of 8,184 article titles published in HBR between January 1967 and June 2018.

In the first part of this analysis, to learn from the past, I visualize and review a set of key terms and how their use within HBR titles has ebbed and flowed over this timespan. In the second part, to project into the future, I identify and discuss the terms with the strongest upward trajectory into and through the present day.

A 50-year view of business topic trends

For the first part of this HBR trend analysis, I gathered titles for 8,184 articles published in HBR between January 1967 and June 2018. I calculated the relationship between year and frequency of a term’s use within article titles to uncover notable terms (12 in total) fitting into one of three categories:

  • Declining-Focus Terms (negative relationship between year and term frequency)—Two terms that, across the 50-year timespan, have decreased considerably in use within HBR article titles.
  • Increasing-Focus Terms (positive relationship between year and term frequency)—Seven terms that have increased considerably in use.
  • Nuanced/Stable-Focus Terms (nominal or no relationship between year and term frequency)—Three terms showing either consistent interest or a relationship that doesn’t uniformly trend up or down, in some cases due to varying conceptualizations of the term over time.

The visualization below summarizes the entire 50-year HBR topic trend analysis. The timeline is separated by decade (1960s beginning in 1967 through 2010s ending in mid-2018), accounting for differing numbers of articles for each time period. Below, I review each term category and, where relevant to illustrate certain trends, provide a representative HBR article.

50 Years of HBR Topics

Declining-Focus Terms—Two terms that, across the 50-year timespan, have decreased considerably in use within HBR article titles.

50 Years of HBR Topics

  • “Management”—Management was an extremely dominant HBR term throughout the 1960s and 1970s (including an article in the first issue included in this analysis, January 1967’s “Checkers or Choice in Manpower Management”; not available online), and remained relatively common through the 1990s. Onward from this point, however, it became much less frequent. But why? One possible reason is a broader perspective on sources of business value than solely a company’s own management structure. In particular, “leadership” and “innovation” (discussed further below), became in the 2000s and beyond, much more prominent as article topics alongside the decline of “management.”
  • “Product”—Following a similar pattern to “management,” but at a lower frequency rate overall, “product” received a heavy HBR focus in the 1980s and 1990s yet dropped off sharply in the 2000s. Viewing the increase in “customer” references in the late 1990s onward, one explanation for the decline of “product” is a reorientation to customer-in rather than product and services-out views of a company’s market presence (e.g., 1996’s “Learning from Customer Defections”).

Increasing-Focus Terms—Seven terms that have increased substantially within HBR article titles across the 50-year time period.

50 Years of HBR Topics

  • “Leadership”—Mirroring the use of the term “management,” leadership was only a weak focus through the 1980s, then gained steady interest from that point on, peaking in the 2000s through articles such as January 2008’s “Putting Leadership Back Into Strategy” and continuing as a regular but slightly less-frequent topic through the 2010s.
  • “Innovation”—Largely absent as a topic before the mid-1990s, “innovation” emerged as a major article topic in the 2000s alongside economic and competitive forces of that time period (as an example, October 2002’s “Open-Market Innovation”). Though, it too has subsided slightly into the 2010s, perhaps as innovation is discussed in more specific terms related to the source and nature of corporate innovation.
  • “Team”—HBR articles’ coverage of workplace “teams” gained momentum in the 2000s and has continued with sustained intensity into the 2010s. HBR featured four team-focused articles within two consecutive issues in mid-2016, including June 2016’s “How to Preempt Team Conflict“).
  • “Women”—“Women” has become increasingly prominent in HBR article titles in the late 2000s through the 2010s. This renewed interest pairs a lesser but notable focus on this topic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Troubling as an indicator of decades of stalled progress in gender diversity in the leadership ranks however, HBR’s coverage includes criticism both early (March 1980’s “Invisible Resource: Women for Boards”) and relatively recent (September 2013’s “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers”) of a lamentable lack of gender diversity in executive boardrooms.
  •  “Customer”—Surprisingly, “customer” was only a sporadically-used HBR title term before the late 1990s, but focus spiked in the mid-1990s and has remained steady through the 2010s, including 2006’s “Customer Value Propositions in Business Markets.” As noted earlier, this may reflect stronger awareness of the external forces shaping a company’s success in generating market value, and the costly consequences of neglecting customer and end-user views.
  • “Data”—Though it remains a lesser topic compared to others on this list, use of “data” in HBR article titles increased in the 2010s, often in the context of big data and analytics. Among these articles is what may to this day be the most-referenced article on the online dating profiles of data professionals, October 2012’s “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job Of the 21st Century.
  • “CEO”—Possibly the most striking topic trend from this entire analysis, the enormous surge of the use of “CEO” in HBR article titles began in the late 2000s. The term reached massive prominence–far surpassing any other term discussed above–in 2017 and 2018 (as an example, May 2018’s “How Successful CEOs Manage their Middle Act”). Notably for the dramatic shift in focus on this term in the most recent decade, even several earlier clusters appearing to discuss CEOs were actually quite distinct from the current dialogue on top executives. As one such case, the late 1980s “Statesman as CEO” interviews featured heads of state rather than heads of companies (e.g., March 1988’s “Jimmy Carter: The Statesman as CEO”).

Nuanced/Stable-Focus Terms—Three terms with either consistent or cycling both up and down trends of interest.

50 Years of HBR Topics

  • “Social”—“Social” saw early attention in the 1970s in the context of social interests intersecting with corporate priorities (e.g., 1973’s “Profit: Spur for Solving Social Ills”; not available online). Then, in the 2000s, social reappears in the context of social media (e.g., June 2005’s “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks”). Then, this too begins to dissipate in the late 2010s as social media becomes integral to (and less noteworthy as a distinct title term) the business landscape. Though the majority of articles beyond the 2000s are focused on social media, social responsibility also appears as yet another use of the term “social” (e.g., June 2006’s “Strategy & Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility”).
  • “Change”—From the perspective of HBR article coverage, change is indeed a constant, at least within the last 30 years. “Change” drew a moderate and steady level of interest from the 1990s through the 2000s (including November 1997’s “Changing the Way We Change”). To a lesser extent, focus extended into the 2010s. Contributors to this recent decline likely include the displacement of change in a general form by more specific drivers and sources of change, such as digital and political forces.
  • “Value”—Among the most consistently-used terms in this analysis, “value” has garnered nearly identical levels of HBR interest for over 30 years. Though, in the 2000s and continuing through today, it acquired a dual meaning as a focus for discussions of corporate values (e.g., November 2002’s “When Company Values Backfire”) as well as corporate value generation (e.g., October 2014’s “Capture More Value”).

8 terms poised to define the future of business

Whereas the terms above represent notable past through current trends as manifested in HBR article coverage, to spot terms and concepts likely to continue upward into the future requires a different type of analysis. For this part of the analysis, I identified the eight terms showing the strongest upward trajectory in the past three years through today (2016-2018), compared to the first part of the 2010s (2010-2015).

Steeply-Increasing Business Terms through Mid-2018

  1. “CEO” (29 articles in 2016-2018; rate of the term’s usage increased 17% compared to 2010-2015)—As shown above, one of the most dominant HBR article trends is in hearing much more from and about top-most executives: how CEOs ascend, struggle, and lead others. A representative recent article is May 2018’s “How Successful CEOs Manage Their Middle Act.”
  2. “Problem” (9 articles; increased 148%)—Many recent HBR articles have taken a problem-focused approach to strategies and tactics, framing issues in terms of pressing business challenges rather than longer-term opportunities lacking a clear sense of urgency. A representative recent article is January 2018’s “Can MOOCs Solve Your Training Problem.”
  3.  “Culture” (8 articles; increased 29%)—Corporate culture, long in the background as a corporate imperative, is increasingly positioned as a cornerstone of change readiness and active talent management. A representative recent article is January 2018’s “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture.”
  4. “Growth” (8 articles; increased 69%)—Notably, though growth is far from a new topic for HBR, in recent articles it’s conceptualized as a multi-faceted outcome. That is, rather than centered solely on profit or revenue increases, growth is thought of as a concept that must coexist with key social and diversity considerations. A representative recent article is January 2018’s “Inclusive Growth: Profitable Strategies for Tackling Poverty and Inequality.”
  5.  “Diversity” (5 articles; increased 96%)—The business community’s recognition of the financial and innovativeness impact of diverse perspectives has never been stronger, fueled in part by an upswell of recent HBR articles on this topic. A representative recent article is March 2018’s “Diversity and Authenticity.”
  6. “Risk” (5 articles; increased 129%)—As business risks—often stemming from political, social, and technological forces—escalate, high-profile examples of missteps and mitigation strategies gain new heights of visibility. This in turn generates fear, awareness, and prioritization for risk management as a corporate imperative. A representative recent article is May 2015’s “The New World of Risk.”
  7. “Agile” (5 articles; increased 588%)—Agile has been aggressively recast in business settings through HBR and other publications, away from a generalized quality of companies and workers and toward a fundamentally distinct and high-potential way of working through the adoption of agile project management techniques. A representative recent article is May 2018’s “Agile at Scale.”
  8.  “Digital” (4 articles; increased 57%)—HBR, alongside other major business publications, has advanced and elevated the discussion of “digital” beyond a mere technological force, to a foundational context for how work is designed, how employees interact, how data is acquired, and how leader skill sets must evolve. A representative article is September 2017’s “Managing Our Hub Economy: Strategy, Ethics, and Network Competition in the Age of Digital Superpowers.”

Though it’s impossible to guarantee exactly which current HBR topics will endure into the next three years, the eight terms above represent the best data-driven bets to characterize the near-term future of business. These topics exhibit both the discussion energy and concept depth to remain key business themes through 2020 and beyond. While energy is critical to sustain corporate focus and investment on these issues, depth ensures that they’ll last beyond a transitory, here today-gone tomorrow state that characterizes many business fads.

When paired with the first part of the analysis spanning 50 years and well over 8,000 articles from HBR, the broader landscape for hot workplace topics becomes clear—which macro and micro-level business concepts rise, fall, stagnate, and are entirely redefined through the weathering effects of long-term market forces, technological disruption, and social change.

Download the new DDI eBookTurning Potential Into Profit: An Action Guide To Unleashing Leadership Potential For Business Results.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientist and Vice President of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). Evan is the lead researcher for the Global Leadership Forecast 2018 and is a frequent author and presenter on leadership assessment and development, HR analytics, data visualization, and workplace technology.

Posted: 31 Jul, 2018,
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