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CK Prahalad – The Man

Friends and associates on C. K. Prahalad

Published: May 3, 2010 06:14:03 AM IST
Updated: May 6, 2010 12:27:28 PM IST
CK Prahalad – The Man
M. S. Krishnan

M. S. Krishnan (The Mary and Mike Hallman e-Business Fellow, area chairman and professor of Business Information Technology, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. He was C. K. Prahalad’s co-author for ‘The New Age of Innovation’.)

C. K. and his foresight
As I accepted an offer to take up a faculty position at the Michigan Business School in 1996, my PhD advisors at Carnegie Mellon and other colleagues informed me about this legendary professor and scholar called C. K. Prahalad at Michigan. I first saw C. K. in 1997 at a public presentation he was delivering in Ann Arbor on the emerging economies, primarily India and China. Although I was sitting in one of the last rows of a big auditorium at the Michigan Business School with 400 people in it, I still remember his last slide in that presentation. It was a picture of a family of five in India travelling in a two-wheeler with the mother holding a baby in her hand balancing herself in the rear seat. C. K. concluded by saying that “You don’t need market research and a team of analysts to find out whether there is a big market for affordable cars in these countries.” He added, “But you cannot design products for those markets sitting here in Detroit. You need to be there to deeply understand the requirements and need for affordability.” That was thirteen years back. The world celebrated the Tata Nano innovation last year. All the major global auto firms now have the small car category as an integral part of their competitive strategy. That is C. K. for you.

C. K. as co-author and mentor
My first meeting with C. K. happened accidentally in our faculty lounge during the Fall semester of 1998. Both of us were getting our coffee. C. K. asked me “Are you a new faculty here?” Although I had been in Michigan more than two years by then, I replied to him that I was relatively new. Our conversation drifted to his question about my PhD thesis at Carnegie Mellon. As a fresh enthusiastic PhD, I explained to him that my thesis was about quality and cost management in large-scale software design and development. C. K. looked into my eyes and said “I thought we knew everything about quality. Deming and Juran had done a great job in the 1970s. Why did you spend four years of your life on this problem now?” Unaware of the depth of his question, I tried to explain to him why quality was different in software. Our conversation lasted for just ten minutes and we parted. Two weeks later, we met in the corridor outside his office. He called me inside and asked me if I thought quality in software was similar to quality in education. This was again a typical C. K. kind of question. As I tried to explain to him for a few minutes, C. K. added his perspective. C. K. took his yellow pad and started drawing the flow of our argument and asked me in his typical style: “This is what we are saying, is it not?” That was the end of that meeting. I was still not fully aware of the depth of these conversations and that it was the beginning of a deep friendship and transformational experience. I was satisfied merely with the fact that I had good conversations with one of the most famous senior professors. Three weeks following that meeting, C. K. sent me a memo stating that he found our conversation on software quality intriguing. He presented me with the context that he sits on the audit committee and boards of large companies. He articulated why software and digitization are emerging as a critical capability for firms to execute their strategy and invited me as a collaborator to write for senior management audience. This was the start of my professional collaboration with C. K. My last ten years of association with C. K. has transformed me to understand the broader implications of technology strategy and connect technology and social architecture as the two pillars of business innovation. C. K. has helped me better understand the strategic role of technology beyond solving business problems to include solving societal problems in health care and education.

While C. K.’s professional achievements are well published and read by millions, C. K. as a person is deeply known only to those who have been closely associated with him. C. K. believed in friendship with his collaborators. C. K. and his wife Gayatri are one of the best hosts with a big heart. I will always remember C. K.’s kindness and humility to everyone he touched. C. K. was always full of energy to engage in intellectual conversation. C. K.’s commitment to his profession was exemplary. Once he makes an appointment, he will stick to that even if it means flying for twenty hours to deliver a two hour lecture or attend a research meeting. C. K. also took every assignment seriously. Whether it was meeting with the dean at the school, discussing research with co-authors or engaging with a firm, C. K. was thorough in his preparation. C. K. also had enormous patience and a special curiosity to engage in discussions on new trends and ideas. Sometimes I called him on his cell phone in the evening thinking that he was in San Diego. C. K. patiently picked up the phone in the middle of the night in India and yet had a conversation with me. He was truly interested in mentoring his junior co-authors and playing the role of a collaborator. He was always generous in creating new opportunities for his junior colleagues. I have lost a personal friend and mentor. I will miss those dinner discussions and our long research deliberations. I consider myself fortunate to have been associated with C. K. so closely.

C. K. and Next Practices
C. K. is known for challenging traditional assumptions and pushing industry leaders to question their “Dominant Logic” (as C. K. used to say) constantly. In the early 1990s, he pushed the Indian industry leaders to question their assumptions on joint ventures. C. K. had a dream for corporate India. He once showed me a paper he had written in 1992 on the future of joint ventures in India. The vision articulated in that paper called for Indian MNCs to compete in the global market. While India celebrated the success of its software industry in the late 1990s, I remember C. K. constantly pushing them to rethink their business models to escape from their linear growth. C. K. was a true thought leader with a unique passion for India. He had a dream for India@75 that is well known. The uniqueness of C. K. is that he always provided an approach with clarity for making his dreams a reality.

A contrarian, C. K. was exceptional in his foresight for next big ideas. C. K. had plans for at least three next big ideas even during his last days. C. K. truly believed in improving the world through his contributions. He had a vision for marrying sustainability and business innovation. He had a vision for global business innovation with inclusive growth. He had defined a model for next practices in global business education. On April 16, 2010, we lost a brilliant thinker, a wonderful friend and an evangelist of new business concepts. While mourning his demise, we also need to cherish our memories of C. K. and his work. The best way to pay our tribute to C. K. is to strive for turning his dreams into reality and keeping his concept of next practices alive.

CK Prahalad – The Man
Bala V. Balachandran

Bala V. Balachandran (Professor Emeritus of Accounting, Information and Management, Kellogg School of Management, and founder, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai)

C. K. has been a very close friend for four decades. We were full of mutual admiration for each other. As a friend, he was very affectionate and was completely dedicated. He would go out of the way to ensure that you were comfortable and happy. I still remember his surprise visit to my son Diwakar’s wedding in Houston — we had initially thought he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he did, with his wife Gayatri and son Murali and spent two whole days with us. As late as February 2010, when we had both returned from our January visit to India, I was enquiring about his health. On this occasion, he told me, “Bala, I am sorry I could not visit Great Lakes this January — I meant to, but I couldn’t. Please accept my apologies. I will definitely make it next year.” I could not believe this man — even at that juncture he was more worried about apologising to me. Sadly, next year will never come.

When you look at C. K.’s work, it always had a high degree of innovation. His forte was that he could write about anything — the customer, the CEO, strategy, core competencies, marketing — and he would always be spot-on. He had tremendous impact on the leadership/top management. He chose to research the strategy levels and suggest implementable, sustainable takeaways that didn’t require an analytical mind to comprehend. His lucid, clear and logical presentation ensured that he was an instant hit. To be able to write management that non-managers can understand is not easy and in that, he reigned supreme.

Amongst his many contributions, he will be singled out for his ‘Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’. Why? It projects a fundamental approach to business, entrepreneurship, society and is a ready-reckoner to both developing and developed countries. Who would have thought that you could fight poverty, profitably? Both words are the anti-thesis other. That he was able to successfully and logically understand the connect and present it in such an intriguing manner shows the top-class of his brain power. In fact, I even remember discussing with him that I preferred the word ‘base’ to bottom and how we could use his outlined models to completely convert the pyramid into a cylinder where the largest and poorest section is no longer the largest or poorest.

C. K.P has an interesting approach to problem solving. This is something I have admired in him and something I have learnt to put to use myself. He is a very keen observer and rarely misses a thing. Now, all these observations are duly classified stored away in his mind to be used when their need arises. Once the crisis presents itself, C. K.P draws from these specific and appropriate observations, with the fullest knowledge of what they represent and uses them to locate outstanding solutions. I have since learnt that this is a cultivated trait but to C. K.P, it came naturally.

CK Prahalad – The Man
Anil Gupta

Anil K Gupta (INSEAD Chaired Professor of Strategy, INSEAD)

C. K. Prahalad – A Man Who Always Lived in the Future

It is extremely rare for any academic to have more than one breakthrough idea in the entire career. C. K. was that rare person to have contributed multiple powerful ideas to management vocabulary — core competence, strategic intent, and the most original idea of them all — fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. He was passionate about looking for the next practice rather than getting trapped into imitating today’s best practice.

The first time I met C. K. was in 1975. I had started my doctorate at the Harvard Business School just as C. K. was about to finish his. I invited C. K. to my apartment for a get-to-know dinner. He asked me if I knew the names of any Fortune 500 company CEOs and, if so, how many. He made a passionate argument that, for any budding scholar, it was just as important to know the names and accomplishments of top CEOs as it was to know the names and ideas of top scholars. This dual respect for the worlds of theory and practice has stayed with me ever since.

My most recent interactions with C. K. were in 2009. We served as co-speakers at an SAP CEO Forum in Frankfurt in April. Later in June, C. K. and Gayatri invited me and my family to their San Diego home for dinner. On each occasion, C. K. went out of his way to find out how things were going in my life both professionally and personally. He believed in leading a balanced life and was obviously very proud of his children. What was particularly interesting was the pride with which he showed off the flowers in his yard.

I will miss the opportunity to learn from his sharp mind and the joy of seeing someone manage his life in such a wonderfully balanced way.

Dave Ulrich (Professor of Business Administration and Director, Human Resource Executive Program, Stephen M Ross School of Business, University of Michigan)

C. K., Mentor to the world (and business)

CK Prahalad – The ManLike many who “knew” C. K., I realise I was not in his inner-most circle, but his ideas and influence were in mine. I had the privilege of teaching with him at Michigan when our programs were ranked #1 in the world and where we considered ourselves C. K. and the Pips. My wife and I had dinner with him and his wonderful wife. He was always gracious with Gayatri, respecting her opinion and listening attentively to her. When we had dinner, she had engaged him in buying a very nice and unique dining room table that she managed, but he was obviously involved.

I learned from him as we travelled to clients. In our travels, I noticed that he was a very generous tipper, giving to those who had less. I asked about this and he simply said that he had so much and felt it good to give back.

Simply stated, he has been perhaps the most gifted thinker in the world of business in the last two decades. He had the capacity to not only see beyond the obvious horizon, but the ability to turn innovative ideas into management impact. He changed how many of us envisioned the business world as a setting to resolve societal problems. And, over and over again his brilliant insights were coupled with enormous humanity where he showed by word and deed that he cared about people both at the top and bottom of the pyramid. The world of business will not be as successful without his wisdom and his dear family and close friends will have an enduring hole in their hearts only partially filled by the knowledge that his enduring ideas will have shaped a generation of leaders throughout the world.

CK Prahalad – The Man
Image: Contextes
Yves Doz

Yves Doz (Timken Chaired Professor of Global Technology and Innovation at INSEAD. Doz co-authored The Multinational Mission with C. K. Prahalad)

C. K. Prahalad was a continuous source of aspiration and inspiration. Most of what I learned professionally since meeting him at Harvard (where both of us were doctoral students in the mid-70s) over thirty years ago, I learned it from C. K. He was not just the greatest conceptualiser of management and leadership issues, he also very carefully and responsibly challenged us to specify how conceptualisation could enrich, inform, and unleash practice and to use practice to stimulate and improve our research and our imagination. He himself provided an exemplary role model for building bridges between corporate leaders and academics. I hope remembering him will incite all of us, academics and business leaders to build more bridges. He was a source of inspiration we will deeply miss.

He was not just a towering management thinker; he was also as a deeply spiritual person, concerned first and foremost with doing good for mankind, a source of aspiration for all of us. Beyond spiritual matters, he also enjoyed life, learning French wines from me, and me, the delicacy of Indian cuisine from his wife, Gayatri, and him. The fields of Strategic Management and International Business have lost a towering intellectual leader, and I have lost a loved friend.

Stuart Hart (S.C. Johnson Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise, Cornell University. He co-authored with the first ever article on the Bottom of the Pyramid with C. K. Prahalad which was published in 2002)

CK Prahalad – The Man

Image: Kaushik Chakravorty

C. K. Memories
The untimely death of C. K. Prahalad on April 16 has given me reason to pause and reflect on just how important this man has been, not only to the world, but to me personally. I first met C. K. Prahalad in 1985, as a recently-minted PhD just joining the strategy faculty at the University of Michigan Business School. At the time, I had little idea just how influential and life-shaping my connection with C. K. would become.

C. K. was paradoxical: He was distant, yet incredibly warm; deadly serious with a well-developed dry sense of humour; he travelled in elite circles, yet he also treated the secretaries, janitors — and young professors — with dignity and respect; he was dedicated to global impact, yet also cared deeply about the School, his colleagues, and his family. But perhaps most significantly, he was a creative contrarian. He taught me to always look for the unintended consequences of any action — the “toxic side-effects” as he liked to call them. He also taught me to look at things, whenever possible, through the “other end of the telescope.” Indeed, C. K.’s unique perspective on strategy — including his notions of “core competence” and “strategic intent” — helped to shape my entire professional point of view.

As a young professor at Michigan, I taught the core course in corporate strategy with C. K. and learned most of what I know about teaching from him. Later, in the late 1980s, when I was struggling to define my professional identity, C. K. was one of the few faculty colleagues who encouraged me to pursue my personal passion about the connection between business and the environment. In fact, were it not for C. K., I never would have made the conscious decision (which I did in 1990) to devote the rest of my professional life to sustainable enterprise. That was the best decision I ever made.

A little more than a decade ago, C. K. and I collaborated on what would be our only joint work together — the original article making the case for why (and how) the corporate sector might serve the four billion poor at the “bottom” of the economic pyramid (BoP). A quintessential example of “contrarian creativity,” it took us four years before anyone would publish this paper. We developed a working paper in 1998 that went through literally dozens of revisions before being published in 2002 as “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” That paper became an underground hit before it was ever published and spawned a whole new field — BoP business. For me, this was a life-changing experience. For C. K., it was another day at the office.

C. K. remained true to his nature to the very end. My colleague, Ted London and I are working on a new book focused on the future of BoP business and C. K was one of the key contributors to the effort. Knowing that he was in a fragile state, we gently inquired as to the status of his chapter for the book. One week prior to his passing he emailed: “You have probably given me up for dead. Yes I was there… I am in ICU in Scripps for the last 16 days and I am now stable but not recovering fully yet…Good view of the Torrey Pines golf course and ocean from my room. I do not know whether you still want my piece. If you go forward without it I will understand. But if you change your mind, I need the help of a scribe. Let me know. Warm regards C. K.” Paradoxical to the end; and that was the final word.


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  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    Dr.C.K.Prahalad was the ninth of eleven children born in 1941 in to a Kannada speaking family in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. His father was a well-known Sanskrit scholar and judge in Chennai. At 19, he joined Union Carbide, he was recruited by the manager of the local Union Carbide battery plant after completing his B.Sc degree in Physics from Loyola College, Chennai, part of the University of Madras. He worked there for four years. Prahalad called his Union Carbide experience a major inflection point in his life. Four years later, he did his post graduate work in management at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. At Harvard Business School, Prahalad wrote a doctoral thesis on multinational management in just two and a half years, graduating with a D.B.A. degree in 1975. Professorship and teaching: After graduating from Harvard, Prahalad returned to his master's degree alma mater, the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. But he soon returned to the United States, when in 1977, he was hired by the University of Michigan's School of Business Administration, where he advanced to the top tenured appointment as a full professor. In 2005, Dr. Prahalad earned the university's highest distinction, Distinguished University Professor. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    on Jul 31, 2013
  • Jasmeenflora

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    on Mar 26, 2011