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Gautam Ahuja
  Gautam Ahuja

Gautam Ahuja Reflects on C.K.'s Academic Contributions

4/26/2010 --

Professor Gautam Ahuja reflects on some of C.K. Prahalad's academic contributions.

Much has been written about C.K. the man, the thought leader, and the impact of his ideas on public policy and managerial practice. In this note I focus mainly on the scholarly impact of C.K.'s work. C.K. was a very unusual academic, but that did not prevent him from having an impact on every usual academic. Attending to primarily the scholarly contributions I outline below one perspective on his outstanding scholarship, his tremendous contributions to teaching, and his overall impact as an intellectual giant and leader in the field of business research and education. In the sections that follow I address each one of these components of C.K.'s record in some detail.

C.K.'s scholarship has had a tremendous impact on the field of business strategy, and he is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the field, both by academics as well as the broader business and managerial community. He was a fountainhead in terms of generating some of the most impactful ideas in the field, which have then been used in hundreds of studies thereafter, incorporated in textbooks, and indeed in many cases, have now percolated into everyday use and managerial thinking, and even into public policy. Such a wide-ranging impact on so many different audiences is a remarkable achievement by any standards.

C.K.'s research contributions have had several salient features. First, they were characterized (as is often the case with intellectual leadership of the highest order) by a willingness to go against established conventional thinking. For C.K., thinking beyond the confines of existing research and then producing a remarkable and original perspective that completely recharacterizes the problem in fundamental ways was a standard operating procedure. Indeed one might argue that many academics would like to adopt this as a standard operating procedure. What distinguished C.K. is that he repeatedly succeeded in doing so. Indeed his whole career was one of rewriting academic orthodoxy. Much of his most influential work illustrates this. When the academic world was focused on product market explanations for diversification, C.K. delved into the factor market to provide the "core competence" explanation for the observed pattern of diversification. The concept of "fit" was widely regarded as the sine qua non of good business strategy — i.e. firms succeed because they adapt or "fit" the particular constraints of their particular business environment. Into this world C.K. introduced the notion of "stretch" as a strategy highlighting that some of the most successful business strategies are successful precisely because they do not make attempts to "fit" the environment, rather they try to "stretch" the firm's resources to expand its horizons. Extensive market research before launching products was conventionally cited as an appropriate and desirable practice. C.K. however introduced the notion of "expeditionary marketing," the idea that sometimes product launches can themselves be a form of market research and if firms can improve their ability at cost effectively launching products that may be a much more effective way of developing products. Similarly, when the field was focusing on unrelatedness in product markets as the mechanism underlying the poor performance of diversified firms, C.K. introduced a cognitive perspective, "dominant logic," to provide a foundational logic for this argument.

Focusing on large multinational corporations from developed countries and targeting rich markets and customers has long been the staple of market-entry recommendations in international business. C.K. has reversed that logic by looking at the prospects of making a viable market from "the bottom of the pyramid" and at the lessons to be learned by focusing on the less developed nations. Obtaining economies of scale through standardized provision of goods and using vertical integration to coordinate activity were often regarded as synonymous with large corporations. C.K., however, espoused the logic of customizing to the individual while coordinating from beyond the company's resources. In the international business arena, C.K.'s work on the internal management and processes of the multinational corporation (the global integration-local responsiveness approach) have become the standard mechanism of studying coordination problems in multinational corporations. Thus, C.K. had a long and established history of taking a contrarian view, but his success goes beyond that — he managed to come up with an alternate explanations, construct, and concepts that have illuminated the problem de novo.

A second characteristic of C.K.'s work, which is a natural consequence of the high level of innovativeness mentioned above is that once he has ploughed open a path, many others have followed on it. Among academics it is commonly accepted that the number of citations received from subsequent academic work can serve as an indicator of the scholarly impact of an idea. Based on this most academic of measures, C.K. again emerges as an extreme outlier. Indeed a citation analysis of C.K.'s work reveals that his work over the years has received more than 5000 citations (as per the Social Science Citation Index). This is a huge number by any standards in our field. Indeed I am hard pressed to identify scholars that have received this level of recognition from their peers. What is also fascinating about the patterns of C.K.'s citations is that for most scholars one would expect that two or three key papers would account for most of the citations and that the other work would generally be far less recognized. In our field, and I think in most sciences, one great idea sets the breakthroughs academics apart, two great ideas make for a durable thought leader and three or more great ideas is simply the top of the profession, and extremely rare.

What is interesting is that C.K. has consistently generated breakthrough ideas and in every decade he has come up with multiple bloC.K.buster ideas. In the 1980s he wrote The Multinational Mission, Strategic Intent, Dominant Logic — all three of which have since acquired seminal status, winning awards (the Dominant Logic article was selected as the most influential piece to be published in the primary scholarly journal in strategy, Strategic Management Journal, over the decade of the 1980s), citations from other academics, and recognition in the form of passage to practice in the major textbooks. In the 1990s he wrote Core Competence (most highly reprinted article in the history of the Harvard Business Review), Expeditionary Marketing, Strategy as Stretch, Competing for the Future, and the Corporate Imperialism — five bloC.K. buster ideas in one decade! Each of these initiated a whole stream of research following up on it. In the 2000s he has continued this remarkable record with three bloC.K.buster ideas, co-creation and experience-based strategy, the "bottom of the pyramid" approach, and most recently, the N=1, R=global concept. Each of these have received many accolades, including becoming best-seller books that have been nominated as Editor's Choice by many of the leading business publications (such as The Economist, BusinessWeek, etc.).

Of course C.K.'s academic kudos go well beyond citations. Honorary doctorates are one of the highest accolades provided in the academic context and C.K. was honored with multiple honorary doctorates. He was inducted as a Fellow in the Academy of International Business and a Strategic Management Society Fellow. Yet another indicator of the breadth of his impact is provided by the invitations that he received to write articles in the top journals of other fields such as marketing and information technology.

While C.K.'s impact on academic work is captured through some of the above and his remarkable citation count, the preceding paragraphs still do not capture the nature of impact that his work has had on broader audiences, both managerial and policy-oriented. The path-breaking nature of C.K.'s ideas have led him to regarded as "one of the most influential thinkers in strategy" by the top practitioner journals (such as BusinessWeek) leading to innumerable press mentions, and the adoption of his ideas by senior managers in some of the world's largest, most important and influential corporations. Increasingly, however, his domain of impact has moved beyond even business practitioners and academics to include much larger audiences, such as the United Nations and governments. Illustratively speaking, he was invited to serve on the United Nations Commission on Poverty and the Private Sector, address UN members, advise presidents and governments on how to manage growth with equity and other compelling problems in the business and development contexts. In recognition of his stature and achievements, the president of India conferred the Padma Bhushan (one of India's highest civilian awards) and the Lal Bahadur Shastri Award for the development of management on him. An influential body of the top business personalities in India was brought together by The Economic Times (India's leading financial newspaper) and this august group selected C.K. as the Global Indian of the Year — a significant achievement given that there are almost a billion Indians across the globe! He was an invitee at the World Economic Forum at Davos, a member of the Board at the World Resources Institute as well as an corporate boards of multibillion dollar corporations such as NCR and Hindustan Lever.

Other indicators of C.K.'s impact and stature are provided by the many honors he has received from other his students. For more than two decades C.K. has been one of the most outstanding teachers at the University of Michigan. He is one of only three faculty to have received the Teacher of the Year Award twice from the MBA students. This is an award decided completely by the students, given to only one instructor a year, and is widely regarded as the most prestigious teaching honor at Ross. C.K.'s classes were always overflowing, a testament to his popularity with the students. Indeed, every year Ross holds a charity event for Habitat for Humanity, and invariably the opportunity of having dinner with C.K. was priced at some outrageous amount by the students — a crude but effective indicator of his inspirational hold and impact on the students.

C.K. was a wonderful and loyal asset for the University of Michigan in many forms and forums: an ambassador for the University worldwide, an award winning teacher for our students, an innovator for our products and processes (e.g., XMAP), and an inspiration to legions of faculty and students. Perhaps equally important is another element of C.K. that I would recognize. Often when individuals attain a certain level of success they use it to impose their views on others, and try to shape their context in their own image. What was wonderful about C.K. was that while his choices were extremely idiosyncratic (as of any pioneer), he always welcomed, honored, and celebrated the different choices of others. Thus, he has always encouraged the strategy group and the faculty in it to find their own best way to contribute, never once judging or imposing his preferences on anybody. This "big tent" approach is another wonderful attribute that is worth celebrating.

It has been said that the most singular tragedy of an untimely passing is the tasks left behind incomplete, the mountains left unscaled, the responsibilities left unfulfilled, the ambitions left unrealized. And while we grieve C.K.'s untimely passing, his abstracted biography above should indicate that we can be sure that at least that for him these fears are without basis. He walked with kings and presidents, potentates, and CEOs. He stood on the most important stages of the world, a central voice on some of the world's most important problems. He influenced careers, companies, governments, and indeed nations. Through his books and articles and letters and speeches, he will provide guidance for generations to come. In the richest environs of the globe he represented the talent, the self-respect and pride of one of the poorest nations on earth; he was simultaneously a cheerleader, a symbol, and a beacon of leadership to people across the world. And his synthesis of the free-market ideas of his adopted nation with their application to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in countries like his native one, he represented the ultimate symbol of global integration: a man who can be thought of as a true global citizen. I am sure that this is one description that he would have liked.

—Professor Gautam Ahuja

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,