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Print has endured digital times and is not going away soon: Vinay Hebbar

Vinay Hebbar of Harvard Business Publishing feels multimedia learning platforms will allow employees to chart their own development plans

Published: Aug 22, 2016 06:59:51 AM IST
Updated: Aug 18, 2016 03:17:20 PM IST
Print has endured digital times and is not going away soon: Vinay Hebbar
Image: Mexy Xavier

Vinay Hebbar, senior vice president, international markets, at Harvard Business Publishing (HBP), is responsible for the strategy and growth of its three businesses: Corporate learning, higher education and the HBR Group. According to him, people are consuming more content than ever before and learning new things at lower costs. He says the technological advancement has benefited HBP, which also publishes the Harvard Business Review (HBR). In an interview with Forbes India, Hebbar discusses the challenges that he faces as a content creator and an educator. Edited excerpts:

Q. How has technology changed publishing over the last few years? What has been its impact on HBP?
The technology advances in publishing have been terrific for consumers, giving them the access to and choice of so much more content, often at no cost. On the other hand, the digital shift has been much harder for many traditional publishers. The challenges [because of the change] include disruption of traditional revenue streams like print advertising and circulation, the need for increased investment to sustain the print business while investing in digital innovations, and managing through shifting consumer behaviour, new competition and changes in practices followed by powerful content distributors like Facebook and Google.  

Above all, it’s the uncertainty about whether one is placing the right bets in the face of the breakneck pace of change–no traditional publisher wants to be the next Kodak or Nokia, but many are still figuring out their strategy and business model in the digital world.

Technology also presents huge opportunities for publishers of quality content and it can be hugely rewarding, as HBR’s and, more broadly, HBP’s experience has shown. Our digital presence has helped increase our reach exponentially, created new sources of revenue, and enabled us to provide substantially more value and engagement for our audiences.

With regard to the impact of technology on HBP, I can say that it has enabled delivery of even more value to HBR subscribers by offering new, digital ways to apply our ideas and manage the content. Previously, the subscriber experience was limited to reading 10 issues each year and for some, access to the archives– now, thanks to the digital capabilities, all subscribers still read the print magazine but can do so much more; they can listen to podcasts, watch videos, search and access HBR’s archives, save and organise [articles] in their personalised library.

In terms of reach, HBR's paid circulation has surged by 21 percent over the last five years, to nearly 300,000 copies, excluding translated licence editions. Our website HBR.org receives an average of 5.8 million unique visitors monthly, with 55 percent of them coming from outside the US; incidentally, India is the biggest source of traffic outside the US.

HBR has nearly 10 million followers on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. It enjoys significantly higher shares per story on social media than any other business content publisher.  

For our corporate clients, we are able to offer highly contextualised and scalable leadership development programmes leveraging technology. Our online performance support resources like Harvard ManageMentor are used by tens of thousands of employees in large organisations like the State Bank of India, Infosys and Genpact. For organisations like Aircel, HCL or Genpact, we have run blended learning programmes designed to accelerate development of the talent pipeline or in some cases, help them effect big changes and transformation.

With our higher education audiences, technology has enabled the digital distribution of our case studies to B-schools, and support learning through new content like multimedia cases, online simulations and core curriculum readings with embedded videos and interactives.

Q. How do you think people will consume business content in the future? Is there a role for print?

For the last decade, I have been hearing talk about how print magazines and books are endangered species. The reality is that they have endured and in some cases like HBR, even grown.

In India ebooks are yet to take off, while globally, the share of ebooks seems to have plateaued. In fact, in the US, sales of trade ebooks have declined by 11 percent over the last year while print continues to grow. For HBR, print will continue to play an important role in the future, both for the magazine and books. While print is not going away anytime soon, it will increasingly become one of the many forms of engagement between publishers and audiences.  Consumers will consume content from a range of sources, including publisher websites and apps, aggregator apps such as Flipboard or Nuzzel, and most widely on social media. For example, HBR has already run over 65 Facebook Live sessions. In terms of devices, mobile is rapidly gaining dominance, especially in India where 65 percent of internet access is through mobile and 85 percent of social media users access it on their cellphones.

Q. How can the modern worker keep himself updated when the world around him is changing so fast?
Professor David Garvin at HBS has a simple message on learning that has stayed with me. He says, “If your pace of learning is slower than the pace of change, you will fail.”   The modern worker clearly needs to accept change and ambiguity, and become a continuous learner.

Workplace trends like longer careers, shorter and more diverse job tenures, shorter shelf life of skills, and emphasis on specialisation place a premium on continuous learning and development. The reality for today’s students and workers is that many of them will be employed in professions that are yet to be invented even as a large number of existing jobs continue to be entirely replaced by technology. Employees will increasingly be responsible for their own development plans. This has to be in the form of personalised ‘pull’ learning instead of the earlier ‘push’ learning based on the training calendar.

From an organisation’s perspective, the learning and development teams have become facilitators of contextualised learning and curators of content for their workers, rather than developers and deliverers of training courses. As learners get into a lifelong learning mode, they will demand content that they can trust and that is meaningful to them. Also, this Pokémon Go generation will want content that is immersive, interactive, and where it works anywhere on any device

Education and learning are going through a lot of change. The new worker will be a continuous learner and the university will be an infinite process in the working life of everybody. How do you look at this situation?

Formal education through quality universities will continue to be valued where learners are seeking ‘education’, as opposed to acquiring skills or simply degrees. Traditional benefits of attending university include access to faculty, peer group to deliberate ideas, cross business learning and strong alumni networks. In addition to this education, there is another need of continuous learning, as the emphasis shifts from education to competencies, and from degrees to credentials.

Universities are increasingly extending their capabilities to serve the continuing learner by leveraging technology. In addition to the executive education programmes of HBS, he is supported through HBR, HBP’s corporate learning offerings, and more recently HBX, the digital learning initiative by HBS.

Q. HBR is getting downloaded on torrents.
This is a problem for every content provider. We work with companies to bring pirated content down. If you look at the statistics of HBR, you will see that the magazine is growing at a fast pace. The fact is that the content is reaching a wider audience. In some ways, torrents have helped us by taking the content across to various readers. It is not desirable but it is still positive.

(This story appears in the 02 September, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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