Obituary: CK Prahalad (1941-2010)

Obituary: CK Prahalad (1941-2010)

C K Prahalad , the management guru who died yesterday, was the first management guru this writer interviewed. This was in the early 1990s and Prahalad was then head of what he and a few others informally termed the Windsor Club, a group of businessmen from the South who met every year, in February, in Bangalore’s Windsor Manor hotel. The businessmen were all forward thinking, and would meet under Prahalad’s leadership to discuss how they could benefit from India’s new found open market policies. They considered themselves rivals to the so-called Bombay Club, a group of businessmen who responded to India’s effort to open up its economy by asking for a level playing field.

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The Windsor Club believed it didn’t need to ask for this; its members would create one by embracing the ideas of people like Prahalad. This writer doesn’t remember much from that interview, except that Prahalad was very kind and answered questions from a rookie journalist who thought he knew it all with the kind of patience and consideration someone of his stature should have reserved for a peer.

That may have been the characteristic that made him a popular teacher at the University of Michigan , and an even more popular consultant. He showed the signs of becoming a good instructor and consultant early. While still in his early 20s, he would organise simulation-based management games for young managers at his company, India Pistons. Part of the Amalgamations Group, India Pistons was a company that was ahead of its time. Prahalad was its training manager; and the firm was the first to launch a management trainee programme in the country. In those days India Pistons was headed by M K Raju, who is known as the father of management consulting in India and was one of Prahalad’s early mentors.

Prahalad left for IIM Ahmedabad soon, where he was a student in the first graduating class of that institute. (Prahalad had come to India Pistons from Union Carbide that had hired him straight out of Chennai’s Loyola College).

And then he left for Harvard.

He would come back to work in India, at IIM-A for a short stint. It was at the University of Michigan, which he joined after returning from India to the US (almost for good), that Prahalad really blossomed, first as an instructor, then as management thinker, author, and consultant.

Business strategy was his forte, which could explain why he focused on issues such as competition, collaboration, and innovation through the 1990s. His best-known book is Competing for the Future, co-authored with Gary Hamel. The book gave the world a buzz term: core competence.

In the late 1990s and 2000s Prahalad started talking about the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid (which resulted in an eponymous book).

All through, he remained someone who believed in India, although he was acutely conscious of the problems the country needs to overcome if it wanted to claim what he thought was its rightful place under the sun. Despite his fame (and fortune) Prahalad remained almost the same person who had worked as a young manager at India Pistons.

My wife’s father had worked with him and the two of them kept in touch, off and on, through the years. In the early 1990s, when I was dating my wife to be, I discovered a signed copy of Competing for the Future in her father’s study.

Years later, during one of my meetings with Prahalad—over a working lunch where beer and fried squid were part of the menu—I happened to mention this to him, and he insisted on giving me, to pass on to my wife’s father, a copy of his latest work, The Future of Competition, duly signed.

Prahalad may be gone but I think his emergence paved the way for a succession of Indian management gurus and writers—Bala Balachandran, Vijay Govindarajan, and Tarun Khanna among them.

R Sukumar is Mint’s Editor.