CK Prahalad Remembered By Colleague And Friend

In his 14 years at the University of Michigan, Professor MS Krishnan worked as closely and extensively with management superstar CK Prahalad as anyone. In a moving tribute, Krishnan shares some candid and vivid memories of Prahalad, a frequent collaborator with <i>InformationWeek</i>, one of the world's great thinkers, and a passionate advocate for the billions of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Bob Evans, Contributor

April 26, 2010

7 Min Read

In his 14 years at the University of Michigan, Professor MS Krishnan worked as closely and extensively with management superstar CK Prahalad as anyone. In a moving tribute, Krishnan shares some candid and vivid memories of Prahalad, a frequent collaborator with InformationWeek, one of the world's great thinkers, and a passionate advocate for the billions of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.When I got the news of CK's untimely death early last week, I shared my own recollections of this extraordinary man (Global CIO: CK Prahalad, Management Genius And Humanitarian: RIP) and asked Krishnan if he would also be willing to share some of his uniquely close impressions of what it was like to meet, learn from, work with, and become inspired by the towering yet humble man whose work has influenced CEOs, management strategists, heads of state, policy-makers, and most of all the vast numbers of people around the world living in crushing poverty.

Here's is Krishnan's beautiful recollection of his singular friend and colleague:

About CK

CK 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 CK Prahalad at Michigan. I first saw CK 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. CK 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 13 years back. And last year, the world celebrated the Tata Nano innovation--a dozen years after CK predicted it. Today, all the major global auto firms now have the small-car category as an integral part of their competitive strategy. That is CK for you.

CK as co-author and mentor

"My first meeting with CK happened accidentally in our faculty lounge during the Fall semester of 1998. Both of us were getting our coffee. CK 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. CK 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 10 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 CK kind of question. As I tried to explain to him for a few minutes, CK added his perspective. CK 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, CK 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 a senior management audience. This was the start of my professional collaboration with CK. My last 10 years of association with CK have transformed me to understand the broader implications of technology strategy and connect technology and social architecture as the two pillars of business innovation. CK helped me better understand the strategic role of technology beyond solving business problems to include solving societal problems in health care and education.

"While CK's professional achievements are well published and read by millions, CK as a person is deeply known only to those who have been closely associated with him. CK believed in friendship with his collaborators. CK and his wife Gayathri are one of the best hosts with a big heart. I will always remember CK's kindness and humility to everyone he touched. CK was always full of energy to engage in intellectual conversation. CK's commitment to his profession was exemplary. Once he made an appointment, he would stick to that commitment, even if it meant flying for 20 hours to deliver a 2-hour lecture or attend a research meeting.

"CK 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, CK was thorough in his preparation. CK 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 at his home in San Diego, when in fact he was halfway around in India. Regardless, CK would patiently pick up his phone in the middle of the night in India and have 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, but I consider myself fortunate to have been associated with CK so closely.

CK and Next Practices

"CK was known for challenging traditional assumptions and pushing industry leaders to question their "Dominant Logic" (a favorite CK concept) constantly. In the early 1990s, he pushed the Indian industry leaders to question their assumptions on joint ventures. CK 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 CK constantly pushing them to rethink their business models to escape from their linear growth. CK 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 CK is that he always provided an approach with clarity for making his dreams a reality.

"A contrarian, CK was exceptional in his foresight for next big ideas. CK had plans for at least three next big ideas even during his last days. CK 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.

"However, on April 16th, 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 CK and his work. The best way to pay our tribute to CK is to strive for turning his dreams into reality and keeping his concept of next practices alive."

About the Author(s)

Bob Evans


Bob Evans is senior VP, communications, for Oracle Corp. He is a former InformationWeek editor.

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