Visualize a century of management ideas

During Harvard Company review spanning a century, his articles introduced leaders to new ideas and tools designed to keep them at the forefront of running a successful business. Over this period, management has evolved from a relatively specialized business discipline to a field characterized by an ever-increasing ambition to explain how organizations work 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 over its history, paying particular attention to patterns of change. The patterns we have discerned, we believe, could serve as an revealing and interesting proxy for how the theory (and, to some extent, the practice) of management has changed over the past century. In particular, by studying topics that have gained or lost ground over time, we hoped to shed light on the evolving nature of the challenges faced by managers over decades. Which managerial ideas have been most relevant to practice? Has the set of “relevant” ideas changed over time?

To perform our analysis, we first scanned every article published by HBR from its first issue, in 1922, through the last issue in 2021 – 14,777 articles in total. We then used machine learning techniques, statistical text analysis and a fair amount of judgment to identify the significant management terms, grouping them into six management thematic areas: finance & accounting, human resources, marketing, operations, organizations, and strategy. (For more details on our methodology, see here.) Together, these thematic areas loosely correspond to the subjects taught in the classic MBA curriculum.

Analyzing our data, we observed distinct shifts in emphasis over HBR’s history. We’ve illustrated these changes in this animated timeline. You can also see their evolution in the “A Century of HBR Topics” chart.

As these illustrations show, we found three main trends in our analysis: an early preponderance of language related to finance and accounting and operations, followed by a steady, gradual decline; a steady and substantial increase in language relating to strategy and marketing; and a persistent and substantial part of language relating to organizations and human ressources (HOUR).

These results suggest that HBR gradually shifted its focus from tangible aspects of management, such as how to allocate financial resources or organize production, to intangible aspects, such as how to build a sustainable strategy or develop a valuable customer experience. This pattern is consistent with what other researchers have found when studying the evolution of management ideas over the past century. In studies published in HBR and elsewhere, researchers have documented the growing demand for leaders with strong social skills (as opposed to just technical, managerial, and financial expertise) and the increasingly important role that intangibles play in as drivers of value creation at the macroeconomic level. level.

We also found that HBR’s coverage breaks down into three major timelines. During its early decades, the magazine focused most of its attention on concepts relevant to manufacturing and other large, capital-intensive industries and the financial, operational, and organizational challenges they present. Aspects of labor management came to the fore in the 1940s, as did the subject of collective bargaining, reflecting the growing importance of trade unions in mediating this relationship. Key terms from this period and their corresponding categories include:

1920s: Cost accounting (finance and accounting); industrial relations (organizations); inventory control, mass production (operations)

1930s: The capital structure (finance and accounting); Mark (marketing)

1940: Human ressources (human ressources); collective bargaining (organizations)

From the 1950s to the 1970s, HBR gradually shifted its focus to new aspects of production – notably quality control – and began to focus on organizational structure, perhaps reflecting the importance of conglomerates. The magazine’s focus on HR also evolved, with more coverage of how companies might relate to employees rather than organized work. 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 ressources); organizational structure (organizations); Quality control (operations); customer behavior (marketing)

1960: Evaluation of performances (human ressources); choice (finance and accounting)

1970s: Corporate governance (finance and accounting); information system (operations)

In recent decades (1980s to 2021), HBR has focused on competition and strategy (especially in the 1980s) and customer-centric marketing ideas. In the 1990s, a new emphasis was placed on the role of innovation, in particular disruptive innovation, and on new structured managerial approaches to maximize operational efficiency and control, among which Six Sigma and the table forward-looking edge. Similar trends appeared in the 2000s and 2010s, with the entry into play of new managerial frameworks for strategy. Marketing and innovation as a form of strategic differentiation have steadily grown 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 and accounting); Six Sigma (operations); breakthrough innovation, key skill (strategy); market segmentation (marketing)

2000s : Risk management (finance and accounting); value chain, blue ocean strategy (strategy)

2010s: Client experience (marketing); open innovation, value proposition (strategy)

Noteworthy in this timeline is a gradual increase in HBR’s marketing coverage over the years and the explosive emergence of the strategy. We also see coverage moving away from generic topics and towards specific management frameworks and ideas – for example, from mass production to Six Sigma in operationsfrom analytical accounting to the balanced scorecard in finance and accountingand brand to market segmentation in marketing. One way to interpret these changes is that HBR, and perhaps the management discussion more broadly, has increasingly shifted its focus to pragmatic ideas with immediate applicability within organizations.

It is likely that many factors contributed to this change. Organizations have become larger, more diverse and more complex, requiring different types of leadership and management. New technologies have arrived, changing how and where work can be done. The role of managers has radically changed. And the science of management itself has matured: many of the financial and operational issues that once dominated the attention of executives and academics are now, for better or worse, seen as less topical. In their place have arisen new questions, such as how best to adapt to organizational complexity, globalization, workforce diversification and the advent of remote working.

As HBR enters its second century, we can’t wait to hear what guidance it will offer businesses and executives as they grapple with these questions, and others that have yet to be highlighted. .

Note: This article is based on ongoing work with Michael B. Christensen, MJ Yang, and Jan Rivkin.

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