C K Prahalad

Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad , one of world’s influential thinker and strategy guru passed away this Friday. Prahalad was one of the top management consultants in the world and advised several top world class organizations. His ability to abstract complex problems and provide accessible frameworks made him a much sought after scholar in industry.
Prahalad’s “Competing for the future” (co-authored with Gary Hamel) and “The fortune at the bottom of pyramid” are two of the early management books that I read. I had in fact quoted them as being one of the reasons that I was drawn towards corporate strategy when I applied to the FPM programme in IIMB. Both these books had very powerful thoughts presented articulately and in an accessible form.

Once I joined the doctoral programme at Bangalore, I was exposed to more of his work. Also, I learnt that CK’s popularity with the academics is not as much as with the practicing managers. This is not to say that his intellect was challenged. It is just that I sensed that he was not percieved as much a star in the academic world as he is with the practicing world. I guess huge success of his books and concepts such as ‘core competence’ and ‘BoP’ among practitioners only added to this. Consider this note from one of the academics in informing of his demise through an email – “Another titan passes away. Even though, I consider Sumantra Goshal to be a more accomplished “academic”, there was a lot to be learned from Prahalad.” Note the word academic is within quotes. Sure, Sumantra Ghoshal was a thinker par excellence, but Prahalad’s contribution to the literature (as much to the practice) is not minor as well.

As one of my Professors mentions in an obituary in the Hindustan Times, “Over the past 35 years, CKP rewrote the lexicon of strategy with three concepts: dominant logic, strategic intent and core competence.”

CK and Richard Bettis put forward the concept of ‘dominant general management logic’ or ‘dominant logic’ in their 1986 Strategic Management Journal (SMJ) paper. They defined dominant logic as a cognitive schema that shapes the “way in which managers conceptualize the business and make critical resource allocation decisions”. They argued that while strategically similar businesses can be accommodated using a single dominant logic, “diversified firms with strategic variety, impose the need for multiple dominant logics”, thus providing a new link between diversification and performance. In my understanding, ‘dominant logic’ is one of the earliest and till date the most powerful cognitive concept in strategy literature that is dominated by economic analysis. In that sense, the paper was a path breaking one and stood out from the clutter of regression oriented studies that analyzed the link between firm diversification and performance. In their 1995 retrospective of the article, Prahalad and Bettis mention how their original paper took more than five years in the making and convincing the reviewers. The 1986 paper won the inaugural ‘Strategic Management Journal Best Paper’ prize.

In his 1989 Harvard Business Review paper titled ‘Strategic Intent’ (co-authored with Gary Hamel), he employed the concept of ‘strategic intent’ to explain a phenomenon that actually played itself repeatedly over time across industries – the victory of the Davids over the Goliaths. Time and again, across industries and across countries, global leaders are challenged and overcome by companies whose resources and capabilities are far smaller than the leader to begin with. Hamel and Prahalad attributed this to the ‘strategic intent’ of the challenger firms which they defined as a relentless pursuit of a certain ambitious long-term strategic objective that implied a sizable stretch for the organization. This paper won the coveted McKinsey Award for the best HBR paper of the year in 1989 and remains as much valid today as it was twenty years ago, the agressive internationalization of firms from emerging economies being a case in point.

Core competence and BoP were not altogether new concepts. Core competence is hugely influenced by Edith Penrose’s work on ‘The Theory of Growth of Firms’ and companies such as Cavinkare were already catering to the BoP markets much before the HUL’s of the world started listening to Prahalad. In my understanding, core competence is one of the very few works that stands true to the spirit and intent of Penrose’s work though much of resource based view stream of work trace their intellectual roots to Penrose’s work. Moreover Prahalad was instrumental in taking these powerful concepts to the practicing managers through his articulate writing and rich anecdotal experiences. In that his contribution is immense.

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One thought on “C K Prahalad

  1. A balanced and informed view. Professors of Indian origin in US biz schools can be categorized variously. A few are very comfortable in quantitative techniques – being of IIT background etc , a few are solid economists. A rare few are just solid communicators – they create value not so much thru their ideas but by virtue of the effectiveness with which they disseminate them.

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