C.K. Prahalad, 68

C.K. Prahalad, expert on corporate strategy, dies at 68

Dr. Prahalad
Dr. Prahalad (Ross School Of Business/university Of Michigan - Ross School Of Business/university Of Michigan)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

C.K. Prahalad, a University of Michigan professor whose provocative books about business management and global marketing made him one the world's most influential thinkers on corporate strategy, died April 16 in San Diego of a respiratory illness. He was 68.

Dr. Prahalad, who began his career as an engineer in his native India, applied bold and original approaches to a wide range of business practices and economic issues, including corporate culture, consumerism, innovation, marketing and poverty. In explaining his ideas, he coined such now-standard terms of the business lexicon as "core competencies," "strategic intent" and "the bottom of the pyramid," which describes business opportunities among the world's poor.

The Times of London, in conjunction with Thinkers 50, a system of rating the world's top business strategists, called Dr. Prahalad "the No. 1 most influential management thinker in the world" in its two most recent rankings.

Dr. Prahalad's first major breakthrough came in a 1990 article later expanded into a book, "Competing for the Future" (1994), with author Gary Hamel. They used the phrase "core competencies" to describe how businesses should define themselves by their key abilities, rather than as a line of products or services. In the book, which Economist magazine praised as "perhaps the best business book of the 1990s," the authors urged executives to ask themselves, "What are we really good at, and how can we build upon it?"

In a 2004 book written with Venkat Ramaswamy, "The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value With Customers," Dr. Prahalad argued that managers should learn to adjust quickly to changing public demands and to think of their businesses and products from the customers' point of view.

Dr. Prahalad became renowned for the insights he brought to corporate boardrooms eager to stay competitive in a fast-changing global market, but he also began to see that some business practices could be almost revolutionary in their social implications. His book "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits" (2004)described ways that businesses could market products to the poor people of the world, opening the door for those at "the bottom of the pyramid" to be entrepreneurs and consumers.

"If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers," he wrote, "a whole new world of opportunity will open up."

Dr. Prahalad, who could be called a prophet of profit, saw vast business potential in providing goods and services to the billions of people surviving on less than $2 a day. Citing a "single-serve revolution" in poor countries, as companies sold small amounts of shampoo, ketchup, tea, coffee and aspirin, he predicted that these untapped markets would be harnessed by companies springing up in less developed parts of the world.

"Four billion poor can be the engine of the next round of global trade and prosperity," he wrote.

By working with greater efficiency and thinner profit margins, upstart businesses in India, China and other countries could challenge the more established companies of the West, Dr. Prahalad said. In reaching out to the previously neglected market of the poor, he thought that entrepreneurial innovation could lead to an even greater good: the elimination of poverty itself.

"Prahalad's book is mind-blowing," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote in 2005, "because it makes you think about markets in a different way."

Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad was born Aug. 8, 1941, in Coimbatore, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. After graduating from the University of Madras, he joined Union Carbide, and in 1966 he received a post-graduate diploma in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management.

He received a doctorate of business administration from Harvard Business School in 1975 and joined the University of Michigan two years later. In recent years, he lived in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., although he was still on the Michigan faculty.

Survivors include his wife, Gayatri Prahalad; two children; and three grandchildren.

Even though Dr. Prahalad served on corporate boards and was regarded as an international management guru, his lone venture into business, a technology firm he founded in San Diego in 2000, failed to turn a profit and was sold several years ago.

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