How National Geographic Society is trying to change

Here is a nice brief of a HBS case study on National Geographic Society (NGS). 

NGS has been struggling to increase its sales since 1990s and roped in a new CEO in 1996. The case study deals with the changes and challenges in the organisation since then.

Teaching a case study on the National Geographic Society for the first time, HBS professor David A. Garvin walks out to the middle of the horseshoe-shaped classroom and asks his students, “How many of you have familiarity with National Geographic magazine?”

Nearly all 72 students, many from foreign countries, raise their hand. “What do you associate with it?” The yellow border, answers one. Others note the stunning photography, detailed maps, and magazines piled up all around the house.

A few minutes later National Geographic CEO John Fahey is addressing the class, and recalls the remark about magazine piles. “That has come back to haunt us,” Fahey says. “People today don’t want clutter.”

It turns out that many things that made National Geographic one of the world’s top brands during its 123 years are obstacles to overcome. Like many other print publications, National Geographic’s subscription revenue has declined significantly, from $284 million in 1999 to $211 million in 2009. The value of becoming a member of the Society, once a matter of prestige, has eroded. The institution has made large bets on various forms of media—Internet, movies, TV, cable programming—but is still trying to figure out the best strategy for integrating them. Despite repeated structural changes, employees still operate in silos.

In short, the National Geographic case is fertile learning ground for managers. Its lessons address transforming the culture, behaviors, and values of a legacy organization, changing a business model from paper to digital, capitalizing on huge brand awareness and international presence, and promoting cross-functional and cross-divisional collaboration.

As it has been 15 years since Fahey joined, students debate whether he has been too slow? Is he taking the right steps etc? 

What are the lessons from the case?

The first relatively straightforward lesson is how difficult it is to move beyond your historical culture and legacy,” Garvin continues. “History has power. Faulkner writes in Requiem for a Nun, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Old ways of thinking and acting are deeply embedded and slow to change. So practitioners need to understand the powerful influence of the history of their own organizations.”

Other lessons include the importance of getting the organizational culture right, and the need to pull multiple levers when pursuing integration. “There is an organizational structure lever Fahey pulls when he reorganizes. There is a culture and values lever—he changes what behaviors are valued in the system as they move from silos to collaboration. There is a people lever; you often have to change personnel. And there is an incentive lever where you change the compensation structure. All of those need to be done in a mutually reinforcing fashion.”

Finally, combining the Time Life and National Geographic cases offers a unique view of how a manager evolves over time. “If you teach the cases together it shows students both how a general manager’s style evolves and how it stays very much the same. And practitioners need to recognize that 20 years out, in a different organization, perhaps their natural tendency when faced with problem X again is to do Y, but maybe problem X is a little different in this organization and this context than the other one. So maybe this time you don’t do Y, you do Z.”

There are some intriguing comments as well at the end.

NGS is something which is in fond memories of most. Now people may not be seeing the magazine but the TV channel format is a major hit especially with children. Interesting to know more about the organisation…

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