Learning new tricks: How the 102-year Harvard Business Review is leaning into GenAI

One of the biggest reasons for the extraordinary longevity of the Harvard Business Review is the 102-year-old brand’s ability to maintain its strong roots, but also evolve with the times. It comes as no surprise, then, that the venerable publication is taking a long hard look at ways generative artificial intelligence can enhance its operations.

“We’re thinking about the impact of GenAI in a couple of ways,” said Sarah McConville, Co-President of Harvard Business Publishing, sitting down with Kerin O’Connor, CEO of Atlas, for a conversation at the FIPP World Media Congress. “Editorially we’re thinking about how leaders are going to create value differently in a world where GenAI is the co-pilot for you.

“So, when you have people on your teams who are not so heavily invested in managing processes and projects, where do leaders create value in the future? And a lot of it is about those deeply human skills that, right now, the tools aren’t there yet.

“So how do you develop judgment? How do you lean into the emotional intelligence that you need to bring to a negotiation or to a discussion with an employee? How do you think about sense-making in the future.”

While McConville pointed out that GenAI is very good at mimicking certain kinds of forms and formats – like resumes or recipes – as well as synthesising and consolidating information, it does not gel with what makes HBR such a popular and iconic publication.

“A lot of what’s always been in our DNA is how do you take that information, how do you frame a problem or a situation as a leader? How do you make sense of what matters and what doesn’t, and then how do you determine your next steps of action?” she said.

“GenAI is not doing that quite yet. So, we are really thinking about leaning into content that helps leaders co-pilot with GenAI and then at the same time, how are we using those tools to drive efficiency.”

A new age

McConville believes AI will help HBR and the rest of the media industry to enter an age of hyper personalisation.

“We are thinking about our subscription offers, for example – how much do you want to be led by an editor curating an issue of a magazine for you, that’s very forward thinking versus do you want to create your own issue based on articles or ideas that are relevant to you because of your functional domain and what you have to do right now.

“So, we’re trying to find that right balance, but we have to think about it both in terms of the content because of who our audience is, as well as the tools and how we’re using them.”

McConville revealed that HBR is working on a bot that helps readers prepare for getting ahead in their careers.

“A lot of our audience thinks about their career transitions – how do I get ready for my next role and how do I succeed as soon as I hit the ground?” she pointed out. “So, we are thinking a lot about how to leverage the technology in ways that help you prepare.

That comes through right now in our learning products, so we’re working on a bot that’s giving you feedback on difficult conversations, and it can handle both the substance of what you’re saying and the emotional side of it. That we can cascade back into our media offering because, again, our audience wants to learn.”

More from the FIPP Congress:

Managing the archive

HBR is also looking at ways of using tech to make use of its vast archive. “We’re in beta right now on a question- and-answer bot on HBR’s proprietary archive. A really critical point of our value proposition is that we’ve been in publication for over 100 years and have published the majority of the landmark ideas in business.

“So that archive is a really rich trove of insights for people. That’s a critical reason why people subscribe to HBR after they’ve encountered us, maybe off-platform. But it’s static and it’s big and search can only do so much. So, the QA bot that we’re working on, staying within this proprietary archive of highly trusted, high-quality material, it’s now starting to synthesise the answers for you.

“And then of course, we have the benefit of seeing how people are framing questions so that we can tune the bot to get smarter, to be more relevant to you.”

When it comes to the use of AI, McConville foresees major cultural shifts happening that media organisations need to be ready for.

“Organisational changes are coming to media brands that are starting to grapple with these tools and using them in different ways,” she added. “And I think that companies that understand that that is happening and identify leadership roles to help drive that, so you don’t just kind of back into how you’ll be using these tools, I think that will be really important.”


Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x