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Published: August 9, 2010

 
 

The Life’s Work of a Thought Leader

In interviews conducted before his untimely death, C.K. Prahalad — the sage of core competencies and the bottom of the pyramid — looked back on his career and talked about the way ideas evolve.

Coimbatore Krishnarao (C.K.) Prahalad would have celebrated his 69th birthday on August 8, 2010. He was one of the most influential and original strategic and management thinkers of the last 50 years. He was also a friend to strategy+business and, most significantly, a friend and mentor to management thinkers and practitioners all around the world — particularly in India, where he was born and educated, and in the United States, where he lived for most of his career until he passed away from a sudden lung illness on April 16.

Starting in 1977, Prahalad held a post as professor (the Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Strategy) at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School, while building a body of groundbreaking work on the most significant themes in business today: strategy, emerging markets, innovation, and organizational structure. His book Competing for the Future (Harvard Business School Press, 1994), coauthored with Gary Hamel, established core competencies as a strategic enabler, and strategic intent as a managerial purpose; The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Wharton School Publishing, 2005) anticipated the remarkable growth of emerging markets; and The New Age of Innovation: Driving Co-created Value through Global Networks (McGraw-Hill, 2008), coauthored with M.S. Krishnan, proposed that the most value-added corporate activity would occur across hierarchical boundaries. Along the way, C.K. wrote three of s+b’s most prescient articles: “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” (First Quarter 2002, coauthored with Stuart Hart), “The Innovation Sandbox” (Autumn 2006), and “Twenty Hubs and No HQ” (Spring 2008, coauthored with Hrishi Bhattacharyya).

C.K. and I conducted two conversations in 2009 — face-to-face in New York on January 26 and by phone on June 19 — about the nature of thought leadership and the evolution of his own ideas. During these discussions, he spoke intimately about the ancient ideas that inspired his management and strategic beliefs, described the process by which his thinking evolved, and offered a clearheaded vision of his greatest hopes for the future. We recorded these conversations without quite knowing how s+b might publish them; we knew only that it would be good to have a record of C.K. Prahalad’s perspective on thought leadership. Now, we are very gratified to be able to offer an edited version.

Big Ideas from Simple Questions

S+B: Which of your ideas have had the most impact — and how did you develop them?
PRAHALAD:
One would be the idea of core competencies in a corporation. That has had a long life. For example, it reappears as capabilities-driven strategy. Others included the bottom of the pyramid [the profitability in targeting the 2.5 billion people who make less than US$2.50 per day], co-creation [companies and customers innovating together], constrained innovation [typically used to develop very low-cost but functionally sophisticated products, like the Tata Nano], and dominant logic [the idea that companies are held back by their prevailing view of how to conduct business]. Everybody now talks about shifting mind-sets, which is essentially a dominant logic argument.

In developing all of these ideas, I learned not to start with the methodology, but with the problem. A lot of times, research tends to start with the methodology. I prefer to start with a problem that’s of interest and apply whatever methodology is appropriate.

S+B: For example?
PRAHALAD:
To me, the problems of greatest interest are things that you cannot explain with the current prevailing theory. Core competencies was like that. Gary Hamel and I were doing work in the mid-1980s at ICL [International Computers Ltd., a computer hardware and services company that was later acquired by Fujitsu]. The company had enormous technical capabilities, but it was tiny compared to IBM. We asked a simple question: How does a small company take on the dominant competitor in an industry? Management theory at the time said this was not possible. Honda could not take on GM. CNN could not compete successfully with NBC, Walmart with Sears, or Dell with IBM. The theory said that size matters. The underlying logic of unequal balance — relative market share and barriers to entry — would prevent smaller companies from succeeding.

 
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