Global CIO: CK Prahalad, Management Genius And Humanitarian: RIP - InformationWeek
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4/18/2010
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Bob Evans
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Global CIO: CK Prahalad, Management Genius And Humanitarian: RIP

The globally celebrated strategist and scholar who championed the entrepreneurial spirit of the world's poor has died at 68.

Around the table, a dozen of the top CIOs in the world leaned forward in rapt attention, eyes and ears locked on the superstar management strategist. They knew they were hearing a story that would have a profound impact on their thinking, their companies, and their careers.

Because CK Prahalad was talking about stuffed animals.

How many of you, he asked, have been to a child's party at Build-A-Bear? A couple of hands went up.

"Come come now, ladies and gentlemen, we're all friends here, and surely there's no shame in sharing a child's joy at a party. Now how many of us have been to an event at Build-A-Bear?" Most of the hands at the table went up, a bit sheepishly at first and then accompanied by broad grins to match the one on CK's face.

"And when you left, you knew three things, right? One, you knew your child had had a great time, and that is of course the most important point," CK said. "Two, you knew you'll be coming back to Build-A-Bear many many times in the future because as part of the whole experience of adopting a bear and creating a personal identity for it, your child game them his birth date, his sibling's birth dates, and your home address to put on his newly adopted bear's birth certificate.

"And third, you knew you'd spent, when all was said and done, about $150 or $250 or whatever amount for a stuffed bear. A very nice stuffed bear, to be sure, fully credentialed and deeply loved by your child, but nonetheless a bear whose cost was perhaps $2. Yet you paid $150 for it.

"One of the bloody cleverest ideas I've ever seen," CK said. "They take a $2 mass-produced stuffed animal and through the artful creation of a very rich and very personal set of experiences around that $2 product, they get you to pay $150 or $200 or $300 for it.

"So I beg you, as we take this discussion forward, do not tell me that your company's products cannot be greatly enhanced by the addition of IT-enabled services to create unique, personal, and meaningful experiences. Because that is simply not the case."

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The world is now a much poorer place without the wisdom, graciousness, vision, and inspiration of CK Prahalad, regarded by some as the world's top thinker on management and business strategy, and a celebrated and dearly loved distinguished professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. CK passed away over the weekend at his home in San Diego after a brief illness.

But for all of his nearly incomparable accomplishments in the worlds of business and academia, CK might be best remembered for his passionate and untraditional thinking about the billions of low-income people around the world: in his native and beloved India, in Africa, China, South America, and elsewhere. His landmark book, "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid," challenged businesses large and small to shift their thinking from the traditional view that those living in poverty are too poor to be able to afford my company's products, to the more-opportunistic perspective of how can I rethink my packaging and pricing and distribution to offer those people products that they can afford and on which I can make a profit?

His "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" book is deeply moving and evocative, as all of CK's books are, because he politely but forcefully compels us to look at the world in ways that are unfamiliar to us, that can make us uncomfortable, and that force us to think rather than just drone on drearily.

And not long after the book came out in 2004, CK wrote a powerful and controversial guest editorial in the Wall Street Journal that crystallized some of the book's most-compelling insights and appeared under the provocative headline, Aid is Not the Answer. Here are a few excerpts from that guest editorial that show the power of his remarkable mind as well as his boundless spirit and optimism:

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