C.K. and His Foresight
—By Professor M.S. Krishnan
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 C.K. Prahalad at Michigan. I first saw C.K. 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. C.K. 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 thirteen years back. The world celebrated the Tata Nano innovation last year. All the major global auto firms now have the small car category as an integral part of their competitive strategy. That is C.K. for you.
C.K. as Co-author and Mentor
My first meeting with C.K. happened accidentally in our faculty lounge during the Fall semester of 1998. Both of us were getting our coffee. C.K. 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. C.K. 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 ten 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 C.K. kind of question. As I tried to explain to him for a few minutes, C.K. added his perspective. C.K. 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, C.K. 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 senior management audience. This was the start of my professional collaboration with C.K. My last ten years of association with C.K. has transformed me to understand the broader implications of technology strategy and connect technology and social architecture as the two pillars of business innovation. C.K. has helped me better understand the strategic role of technology beyond solving business problems to include solving societal problems in health care and education.
While C.K.'s professional achievements are well published and read by millions, C.K. as a person is deeply known only to those who have been closely associated with him. C.K. believed in friendship with his collaborators. C.K. and his wife Gayathri are one of the best hosts with a big heart. I will always remember C.K.'s kindness and humility to everyone he touched. C.K. was always full of energy to engage in intellectual conversation. C.K.'s commitment to his profession was exemplary. Once he makes an appointment, he will stick to that even if it means flying for twenty hours to deliver a two hour lecture or attend a research meeting. C.K. 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, C.K. was thorough in his preparation. C.K. 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 in San Diego. C.K. patiently picked up the phone in the middle of the night in India and yet had 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. I consider myself fortunate to have been associated with C.K. so closely.
C.K. and Next Practices
C.K. is known for challenging traditional assumptions and pushing industry leaders to question their "Dominant Logic" (as C.K. used to say) constantly. In the early 1990s, he pushed the Indian industry leaders to question their assumptions on joint ventures. C.K. 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 C.K. constantly pushing them to rethink their business models to escape from their linear growth. C.K. 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 C.K. is that he always provided an approach with clarity for making his dreams a reality.
A contrarian C.K. was exceptional in his foresight for next big ideas. C.K. had plans for at least three next big ideas even during his last days. C.K. 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. 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 C.K. and his work. The best way to pay our tribute to C.K. is to strive for turning his dreams into reality and keeping his concept of next practices alive.
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