I recently discussed my dissatisfaction with business journalism from the standpoint of a business analyst, so I thought I would be fair and take some potshots at business blogging as well. I’ll start with the venerable Harvard Business Review. I was an HBR subscriber for quite a few years, and I enjoyed many of their articles immensely. In fact, I often preferred to read an author’s HBR article rather than their book on the same topic because the article provided about 80% of the value in 95% less pages.
However, HBR articles do have a bit of a conceptual, big-picture bias to them. Most of the articles try to avoid being completely theoretical by including concrete case studies of how situations played out at specific companies or by crunching some numbers across various companies. When you transplant this conceptual approach to blog posts, you typically don’t have the time or space to tie your big ideas back to the real world. Instead, you end up with just the airy part.
Case in point, the recent blog post Three Ways to Distinguish an Edge from a Fringe on the Harvard Business Review’s blog. As far as I can tell, “edges” are a theme the writers are exploring over a series of blog posts (as well as in their research group at Deloitte), and edges are defined in a previous post as “peripheral areas with high growth potential,” more or less. Maybe I’m being old-fashioned, but I would prefer to just call them market segments, a term that most businesspeople understand already. In this post, the authors contrast these high-growth segments with “fringes,” which are emerging segments that turn out to be fads or red herrings rather than true growth drivers. Edges need to be exploited to revitalize “the core” (where the money and authority in the organization are – perhaps otherwise known as cash cows), while fringes should be avoided. Hmm. As an example, the post cites the wellness movement and debates whether it’s an edge or a fringe relative to traditional healthcare. In other words, will wellness approaches like acupuncture and chiropractics generate growth and new approaches in healthcare, or will they simply putter along as niche areas? The authors propose scalability, differentiation, and purpose as factors to help us distinguish between edges and fringes.
Is there any real analysis here? Once you take away the edge/fringe jargon, it seems like a circular argument to me. If your emerging growth market can scale, it’s an edge; if it doesn’t grow, it’s a fringe. And so on. At best, we’re rehashing old thinking about new market segments, but with more of a focus on semantics and less on useful business analysis.
I hope I don’t come across as too negative here. Wrestling with nebulous concepts is an important step in articulating new ideas, and I don’t want to begrudge blog writers the opportunity to do so. But at the same time, I think business blogs these days focus too much on big ideas and inspiring mantras rather than practical advice. We’re always hearing about how business managers are asked to do more in less time, and they often don’t receive the coaching, training, and exposure to insightful analysis within the organization that they need to develop their skills. I would like to see more business blogging that focuses on how to help middle management perform better here and now rather than simply satisfying everyone’s cravings for big ideas. In this case, I would have preferred a post discussing how to assess “edges,” how to prioritize them, and how to effectively cut losses when some of those segments turn out to just be “fringes.” In other words, something actionable and backed with real analysis.
I eventually plan to write about a few more examples of where I find business blogging to be lacking these days. Essentially, I want more content that delivers insightful analysis, based on real data, with the level of detail needed to help businesspeople apply that analysis to their own companies and markets. I hope to do a small part in that respect myself. If you’ve come across other sources that you consider both insightful and practical, I’d also be very interested in your reading recommendations.