Q&A| David Wan
A market hungry for business education, India was the Harvard Business Publishing’s (HBP’s) first choice for setting up office outside its home base in Boston, US. Three years down the line in India, the group has diversified its work—providing ideas and content for individual executives and emerging leaders, providing faculty and course material to over 90 business schools, and working with companies to help them prepare leaders at all levels.
We caught up with HBP chief executive officer David A. Wan, who was in the Capital last week. Prior to joining HBP in 2002, Wan spent 25 years in publishing and consulting, including stints at the Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster, as well as companies like Arthur Andersen, PepsiCo and Paine Webber. Wan is a graduate of Yale University and has a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School.
Wan gives us a perspective on the growing business book market in India and the rise of tablet editions, with inputs from Vinay Hebbar, managing director, HBP India. Edited excerpts:
The HBP group has been in India for over three years. How has it been so far?
Wan: Our India operations are really consistent with the mission of HBP, which is to improve the practice of management in a changing world. We decided several years ago that the ability to have impact requires much stronger local presence rather than distributing or exporting our content from outside. It allows us to tailor solutions and have interventions along the way, whether it’s experiential learning for corporates or participative learning for educational institutions.
HBP India was your first subsidiary outside the US. Why did you choose to come to India?
Wan: Just in terms of the growth, not only in economic terms, but also in learning, India is a big opportunity. Culturally education has always been such an important part of society here. And as businesses grow in India, the need for greater impact in business education, at both school level and corporate level, seemed to be at the highest potential in any of the markets for us. We do have a presence in China but mainly through partnerships. There the difficulty comes in finding high-quality translation for business terminology. We’ve recently set up in London.
Also, the business book market in India is apparently huge. Any insights into why people in India tend to read a lot of business books?
Wan: The business book market here frankly seems more robust than in the US. That’s probably connected to what I said at the outset. It’s a hugely growing audience of people wanting to learn more about business, management and ideas that far surpasses any other market. There’s a huge growth in entrepreneurs and start-ups. We just launched The $10 Trillion Dollar Prize—Captivating the Newly Affluent in China And India and there’s a section where the authors talks about the “accelerator mindset”. It’s a distinctive character of leaders in this part of the world—a mix of a huge level of optimism, a “not taking no for an answer” attitude, an ability to see things, be agile and adaptive. I think all of that spurs an avid interest in business books.
Hebbar: Within business books, self-help books are doing very well. Maybe people are trying to compensate for some of the deficiencies in our education system by using these books to help improve their management skills and personality. Also the fact that in the last two decades, people are being promoted very quickly. Suddenly there’s so much responsibility that you have to take on. The pressure is a little more than other markets.
Is there content coming out of India as well?
Wan: Yes, increasingly. People are interested in knowing the best practices, innovations, lessons from leaders here in India, that we try to take back and disseminate around the world. For instance, the book by Vineet Nayar of HCL Technologies Ltd, Employees First, Customers Second—Turning Conventional Management Upside Down, which we acquired really for its global impact.
Hebbar: Another book by Ravi Venkatesan that’s coming out soon, called Conquering the Chaos—Win in India, looks at India from the perspective of a multinational and gives very practical insights—how companies should navigate here, how to structure the organization in India, what are some of the best practices that CEOs entering the India business should think of, how to handle corruption and government.
Tell us about the shift to digital. You launched your tablet edition last month. Are eBooks really taking over print?
Wan: Globally, eBooks make up about 15% of our business. The general trend is that globally English language publishers are making the move to digital. In India it’s probably less than global figures at the moment. But if it follows the same pattern as we’ve seen in the US and the UK, it’ll take off pretty quickly. As tablets get adapted here more, the challenge will accelerate.
What are the challenges in this shift?
Wan: The shift from more legacy, more mass, print books to digital is a challenge in every part of the world. There are positives in that trend, of course. You don’t have to deal with the physical inventory of the books or supply chain issues. But a proper business model still needs to be developed. There are issues of e-retailers, what the revenue sharing should be. However, the more real challenge is how do we make that shift between free and paid-for content. Changing the mindset that the Internet is not always free, is tough. Fifteen years ago when the Internet first became a viable platform for content, it immediately went into the free content–advertising model. That trained probably a whole generation of readers that content should be available for free. Now we have to undo or find a hybrid approach.