The Passing of C.K. Prahalad

4/17/2010 — University of Michigan Home Page. What sad news! (hfk)

Ross professor and world-renowned corporate strategist died April 16.

C. K. Prahalad

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—C.K. Prahalad, the Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Strategy at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, passed away in San Diego on April 16 at the age of 68.

Prahalad was one of the most beloved teachers and influential thinkers at the University of Michigan. He also served as distinguished fellow at the University’s William Davidson Institute, where he played an important advisory role for the institute’s Base of the Pyramid research initiative. He was twice ranked as the world’s most influential business thinker, most recently in October 2009, by the “Thinkers 50” list of the top 50 management thought leaders in the world published by the leadership consulting firm CrainerDearlove.

“It’s impossible to exaggerate C.K.’s impact on business and business education around the world,” said Robert J. Dolan, the Edward J. Frey Dean of Business at the Ross School. “His thinking was far-reaching and commanded the attention of business leaders. I expect it will continue to be influential for a very long time. The passion he had for connecting thought leadership to business practice exemplifies what we are all about as a business school. On a more local level, he was an invaluable advisor to me, as well as to previous deans.”

Prahalad’s work has been enormously influential since 1990, when he and Gary Hamel co-authored an article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Core Competence of the Corporation.” A watershed in the field of strategic management, the article asserted that executives should “identify, cultivate and exploit the core competencies that make growth possible.” Their thinking on core competencies encouraged executives at complex corporations to think of their organizations as a portfolio of competencies rather than merely as a portfolio of businesses. It influenced a wide array of business leaders grappling with the strategic implications of an ever more integrated global economy.

Prahalad and Hamel further developed their thinking in the 1994 book, Competing for the Future, which made a case for robust strategic thinking and analyzed how established market leaders tend to lose ground to innovative upstarts. The book famously looked at how IBM was blindsided by Apple, failing to see the future of the personal computer because it was too focused on maintaining its leadership in the mainframe business.

As the Internet took hold and the role of customer choice and customization grew more important, Prahalad focused much of his thought on how value is created. In 2004, he and Venkat Ramaswamy, professor of marketing and computer and information systems at the Ross School, published The Future of Competition. The book advanced the notion of “co-creation” and envisioned a world in which businesses and consumers collaborated in designing products and services characterized by greater customization than in the past.

In recent years, Prahalad had been a leader in Base of the Pyramid studies, an area of research that explores how businesses might pursue sustainable growth while playing a catalytic role in alleviating poverty in the world’s poorest populations. His 2004 book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, is widely considered indispensible for executives and scholars who wish to understand emerging markets. The book presents 12 case studies, some of them co-authored by Ross MBA students, which illustrate how some companies are turning a profit while bringing enormous social and material improvements to people in emerging market countries.

Ted London, senior research fellow at the William Davidson Institute and director of its Base of the Pyramid research initiative, said Prahalad was “extraordinarily supportive of the work we were trying to do.”

“He was always willing to offer his time and advice to help us achieve our goals and push us to do even better work,” London said. “He helped us think about the direction of our work and gave great advice on next steps.”

Robert Kennedy, executive director of the William Davidson Institute, said Prahalad was one of the top two or three management thinkers in the past 25 years.

“He opened up four different fields of inquiry: the concept of strategic intent; the concept of core competency; bottom of the pyramid; and innovation,” he said. “Each was a big and important idea.”

One of the students who worked closely with Prahalad was Praveen Suthrum (MBA ’04), now co-founder and chief operating officer of NextServices, a health care solutions company with offices in Mumbai and Ann Arbor. Suthrum co-authored articles with Prahalad that appeared in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

“During my first month at school,” recalled Suthrum, “A friend and I casually walked up to C.K.’s office to get him to speak to the Emerging Markets Club. We saw him working quietly in his office. We were too nervous to just walk in. After a minute of debate, we simply walked in and introduced ourselves, ‘We are MBA1 students and we love your work. We want you to speak to our club.’ He responded, ‘I’m sure your club members would turn up if I come to speak, but why don’t we do something more action-oriented?’ Our casual conversation turned into a brainstorming session on how exciting it would be for students to write business cases instead. We walked out of his room with our heads reeling with excitement. That chance meeting became a lifelong engagement that transformed my life.”

Prahalad’s most recent book, The New Age of Innovation, co-authored with Ross professor M.S. Krishnan, examines how companies can build organizational capabilities that allow them to achieve and sustain continuous change and innovation.

“Whether working with faculty on new research ideas, engaging senior executives of companies through our executive education programs, or teaching his MBA classes, C.K. always had the passion for pushing us to realize our full potential,” Krishnan said. “C.K. was a unique management scholar in contributing at least three or four big ideas that have had enormous impact on management thinking or policy making globally. He was a brilliant thinker and unique in his way of synthesizing complex management problems.”

Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad was born in 1941, in Coimbatore in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. At the age of 19, he joined Union Carbide after obtaining a degree in physics from the University of Madras. He received a post-graduate diploma in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in 1966 and followed that with a doctor of business administration from Harvard Business School in 1975.

A professor at the University of Michigan since 1977, Prahalad earned the university’s highest distinction, Distinguished University Professor, in 2005. Among the numerous other awards he received were the Faculty Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award from the Aspen Institute for contributions to social and environmental stewardship, the Italian Telecom Prize for Leadership in Business and Economic Thinking, Lal Bahadur Shastri Award for Excellence in Management, 2000, presented by the President of India, and many others. He served on the boards of NCR Corp. and Hindustan Lever Ltd.

Despite his renown and dizzying array of commitments around the world, Prahalad was generous with his time and insight with students and colleagues. Suthrum recalled what happened when he and his business partners sought Prahalad’s advice on their business plan for NextServices.

“He gently and systematically ripped it apart,” he said. “I distinctly remember that night in Ann Arbor. He had returned from dinner with his wife, Gayatri. Then he looked at me and said, ‘Can the entrepreneur arrange for some red wine?’ He always made time.”

Prahalad is survived by his wife, Gayatri Prahalad; son, Murali Prahalad; daughter, Deepa Prahalad; and three grandchildren.

A special Web site will soon be established for those wishing to share their thoughts or to send condolences to his family. The Web address has yet to be determined, but please send e-mails to

For those who would like to pay their last respects, final viewings will be held 5-9 p.m. Tuesday, April 20, and Wednesday, April 21, at the Greenwood Memorial Park Chapel, 4300 Imperial Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92113. Please R.S.V.P. by 3 p.m. Eastern time April 20 to

For those unable to attend the viewings, the Prahalad family will organize a memorial service in Ann Arbor in the coming weeks. The timing and venue will be announced shortly. Also, in lieu of flowers, the family will soon announce a list of charitable foundations to which donations can be made.

Written by Paul Gediman

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