Over the course of Harvard Business Review’s century-long life, its articles have introduced leaders to new ideas and tools designed to keep them on the cutting edge of running a successful business. During this period, management has evolved from a relatively specialized trade discipline to a field characterized by an ever-increasing ambition to explain how organizations function and how they can be improved.
For the magazine’s 100th anniversary, we decided to take a close look at the nature of HBR’s coverage during its history, paying particular attention to patterns of change. The patterns we discerned, we felt, might serve as a revealing and interesting proxy for how the theory (and, to some extent, the practice) of management has changed during the past century. In particular, by studying which topic areas gained or lost traction over time, we hoped to shed some light on the evolving nature of the challenges faced by managers across the decades. Which managerial ideas have actually been most relevant for practice? Has the set of “relevant” ideas evolved over time?
To perform our analysis, we first digitized every article that HBR published from its first issue, in 1922, to the last issue of 2021 — 14,777 articles in all. We then employed machine-learning techniques, statistical text analysis, and a healthy dose of our judgment to identify significant management terms, grouping them into six managerial topic areas: finance & accounting, human resources, marketing, operations, organizations, and strategy. (For more details on our methodology, see here.) Together, these topic areas loosely correspond to the topics taught in the classic MBA curriculum.
In analyzing our data, we observed distinct changes in emphasis over the course of HBR’s history. We’ve illustrated those changes in this animated timeline. You can also see their evolution in the chart “A Century of HBR Topics.”
As these illustrations show, we found three main patterns in our analysis: an early preponderance of language relating to finance & accounting and operations, followed by a steady and gradual decline; a steady and substantial increase in language relating to strategy and marketing; and a persistent and substantial share of language relating to organizations and human resources (HR).
These findings suggest that HBR has gradually shifted its focus away from the tangible aspects of management, such as how to allocate financial resources or organize production, and toward the intangible ones, such as how to build a sustainable strategy or develop a valuable customer experience. This pattern is consistent with what other scholars have found when studying the evolution of management ideas in the past century. In studies published in HBR and elsewhere, scholars have documented the growing demand for leaders with strong social skills (as opposed to just technical, administrative, and financial expertise) and the increasing important role that intangibles are playing as drivers of value creation at the macroeconomic level.
We also found that HBR’s coverage fell into three main chronological periods. In its first few decades, the magazine focused most of its attention on concepts relevant to manufacturing and other large, capital-intensive industries and on the financial, operational, and organizational challenges they present. Aspects of management relating to the workforce came to the fore in the 1940s, as did the subject of collective bargaining, reflecting the growing importance of unions in mediating this relationship. Key terms during this period, and their corresponding categories, include:
1920s: cost accounting (finance & accounting); industrial relations (organizations); inventory control, mass production (operations)
1930s: Capital structure (finance & accounting); brands (marketing)
1940s: Human Resources (human resources); collective bargaining (organizations)
From the 1950s to the 1970s, HBR gradually shifted its attention toward new aspects of production — notably quality control — and began to focus on organizational structure, possibly reflecting the importance of conglomerates. The magazine’s focus on HR also evolved, with more coverage of how firms could relate to employees rather than to organized labor. In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, important new topics emerged in personnel management, finance, and technology. Key terms, and their corresponding categories, include:
1950s: Interpersonal relationships (human resources); organizational structure (organizations); quality control (operations); customer behavior (marketing)
1960s: Performance appraisal (human resources); options (finance & accounting)
1970s: corporate governance (finance & accounting); information systems (operations)
In recent decades (the 1980s to 2021), HBR trained its attention on competition and strategy (especially in the 1980s) and on customer-centric marketing ideas. In the 1990s a new focus rose on the role of innovation, especially disruptive innovation, and on new structured managerial approaches to maximizing operational effectiveness and control, among them Six Sigma and the balanced scorecard. Similar trends were apparent in the 2000s and 2010s, with new managerial frameworks for strategy coming into play. Both marketing and innovation as a form of strategic differentiation grew consistently in importance. Key terms, and their corresponding categories, include:
1980s: Customer satisfaction, marketing strategy (marketing); competitive advantage, strategic management, strategic planning (strategy)
1990s: Balanced scorecard (finance & accounting); Six Sigma (operations); disruptive innovation, core competency (strategy); market segmentation (marketing)
2000s: risk management (finance & accounting); value chain, blue ocean strategy (strategy)
2010s: customer experience (marketing); open innovation, value proposition (strategy)
Of note in this time line is a gradual increase in HBR’s coverage of marketing over the years and the explosive emergence of strategy. We also see coverage moving away from generic topics and toward specific managerial frameworks and ideas — for example, from mass production to Six Sigma in operationsfrom cost accounting to the balanced scorecard in finance & accountingand from brand to market segmentation in marketing. One way to interpret these changes is that HBR, and perhaps the management discussion more broadly, has shifted its attention toward pragmatic ideas with immediate applicability within organizations.
It’s likely that many factors have helped bring about this shift. Organizations have grown bigger, more diverse, and more complex, requiring different kinds of leadership and management. New technologies have arrived, changing how and where work can be done. The role of managers has changed dramatically. And management science itself has matured: Many of the financial and operational questions that once dominated the attention of leaders and scholars are now, for better or for worse, perceived to be less topical. In their place have arisen new questions, such as how best to adapt to organizational complexity, globalization, the diversification of the workforce, and the advent of remote work.
As HBR moves into its second century, we look forward to finding out what guidance it will offer companies and leaders as they grapple with these questions, and others that have yet to come to the fore.
Note: This article builds on ongoing work conducted with Michael B. Christensen, MJ Yang, and Jan Rivkin.