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C.K. Prahalad's Lasting Legacy Celebrated at 2010 Indian Business Conference

10/12/2010 --

Ross professor influenced Indian industry, education policy, and social equity.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — India's transforming economy and fast-changing market environment motivated much of the groundbreaking work produced by world-renowned management guru C.K. Prahalad.

That work and Prahalad's legacy set the foundation for the Second Annual India Business Conference hosted at Ross in September. Named for Prahalad's 2007 treatise "India@75," the conference attracted political leaders, global executives, students, faculty, and Ross alumni to debate and explore India's progress toward specific economic, technological, and moral goals set by Prahalad for the year 2022.

The Ross Indian Sub-Continent Business Association and the Ross Center for Global Resource Leverage: India presented the conference with support from the University of Michigan Indian Alumni Association and the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Prahalad's daughter, Deepa Prahalad Abhyankar, opened the event with an overview of her father's vision. He imagined universal literacy in a country that would be home to 200 million college graduates and 500 million trained workers, she said. He also foresaw a culture known for progressive and prolific art, literature, and science. And he positioned India as a leading moral voice for people around the world.

Prahalad, the Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished Professor of Corporate Strategy, was eager to force innovation, his daughter said. And he chose specific goals for India in 2022 that would require an inclusive approach, allow the nation to have a credible voice on the world stage, and preserve and strengthen its democratic system.

"My father knew we are trying to set the agenda for a billion people, so we have to get it right," Deepa Prahalad Abhyankar said. "The revolution is just beginning. We must continue the journey and know that my father's spirit will be there along the way."

Prahalad passed away in April at the age of 68. His final article, "Innovation's Holy Grail," was published posthumously in the July-August 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review.

C.K. and Knowledge
Throughout the India Business Conference, speakers and panelists touched on components of Prahalad's vision and illustrated how they are impacting the country's culture and policy. Keynote speaker Sam Pitroda, adviser to India's prime minister on public information, infrastructure, and innovation, said he shares Prahalad's dream of a universally literate, educated, and skilled population. But he acknowledged India's complexity could make that a difficult goal to accomplish: India is a fascinating study in the contrast between rich and poor; urban and rural; educated and uneducated; and young and old.

"Anything you could say about India, someone could say the exact opposite and be 100 percent right," Pitroda said, noting it all comes down to human capacity. "Nations are built on the quality of people. We have six-sigma products, but we need six-sigma people."

In his role as adviser to the prime minister, Pitroda said his current focus is on building public infrastructure and democratizing information. He cited the National Knowledge Commission in India, a high-level advisory body created in 2005 with the goal of transforming the nation into a knowledge society.

"Information has always been controlled by the few, but our job is now to create information systems with more transparency," he said.

Tarun Das, president of the Aspen Institute India, demonstrated how Prahalad's vision for India at 75 continues to inform the country's trajectory. Das, who also is the former chief mentor of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), explained that Prahalad's push for skill development was vital to the formation of the National Skills Foundation of India. The nonprofit is focused on skill-building and vocational opportunities for India's workforce.

"C.K. drove the intellectual process on skill development in India and prepared a complete framework for the nation," he said.

C.K. and Indian Development
That Prahalad was instrumental in the development of corporate industry in India is undeniable, Das said. The period between 1947-91 represented a time of extreme regulation during which the government "micromanaged" the economy and industry.

In the early 1980s, then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the first steps toward deregulation when he established the Alexander Committee, whose goal was to create a roadmap for trade liberalization.

"In the '80s, C.K. came into the picture to engage with corporations and CEOs," said Das. "A lot of people didn't know what to do when the landscape of the corporate sector began to change in India, and they needed the mentoring and teaching of C.K."

Understanding that India could not survive on its service sector alone, Prahalad was also at the center of the movement for a stronger manufacturing sector. But perhaps more importantly, Das noted, Prahalad understood that India must connect to the world in order to become a stronger country.

"Because C.K. was in America, we reached out to American corporations," Das said.

To exemplify this, Das gave the example of former GE CEO Jack Welch's initial reluctance to do business in India. Today, the country represents one of GE's most important markets, around three billion dollars. "It all started with C.K.," Das said.

He also recognized Prahalad's unfailing optimism when it came to India's potential for growth.

"C.K.'s dream that India can grow at 10 percent per annum and surpass China makes us think beyond our limitations," he said. "We always thought that the government has to change India, but C.K. taught us that you can make change from the outside."

C.K. and Social Equity
A panel discussion called "India@75: Progressing Toward the Vision" explored India's potential to lead the world in 2022. The panel featured Gautam Ahuja, Harvey C. Fruehauf Professor of Business Administration and professor of strategy at Ross; Rajan Navani, managing director of Jetline Group of Companies; and Gopal Srinivasan, MBA '83, chairman of TVS Capital Funds Ltd.

One of Prahalad's most significant contributions, said Ahuja, was co-creating business' new social compact: the idea that executives and social activists can work together. Prahalad stressed that corporations and nongovernmental organizations need each other to achieve their respective goals in developing countries like India. Companies require NGOs' local knowledge and community-based marketing techniques, while NGOs need the business discipline corporations bring to their operations.

Ahuja said this social compact is also in line with one of Prahalad's most well-known ideas, the "fortune at the bottom of the pyramid." Prahalad proposed the idea that businesses, governments, and donor agencies begin thinking of the poor as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-demanding consumers in order to help them escape poverty while contributing to the economy.

But Ahuja noted that Prahalad's vision was not only an academic exercise.

"I might be attaching an intellectual element to this story, but it's a story of the heart, not the mind," he said.

Srinivasan added, "The freedom fighters of this war for C.K.'s vision are the entrepreneurs because making abundant supply in every area is the way to step forward."

C.K. and Ross's Connection to India
In a speech during the conference, real estate developer Sanjay Mirchandani, MBA '89, president of the University of Michigan India Alumni Association (UMIAA), said the alumni group was founded out of a common love for Ross and U-M and an interest in India. But he was quick to point out that "C.K. was the savior" of the organization.

"We needed funds and C.K. said, 'Use me,'" said Mirchandani. In 2003, the founders of UMIAA established a conference in India, in which Prahalad was a key draw for participants. Over the next seven years, Prahalad continued to support the group by speaking to alumni and encouraging them to strengthen their connection to Ann Arbor.

"We owe a lot to C.K.," Mirchandani said. "We could not have survived without him."

The India Business Conference at Ross continues to strengthen Ross and U-M's connection to India. Other speakers included Jamshyd Godrej, managing director of Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd.; Venkat Ramaswamy, professor of marketing; Alok Mishra, vice president of Johnson & Johnson Medical Asia Pacific South Asia; Anand Raghuraman, partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group; Prasad Ram, director of engineering at Google; Gunjan Bagla, founder and managing director of Armitt Ventures and author of Doing Business in 21st Century India; and Vikramaditya Khanna, professor of law at U-M.

Other events at the conference included a demonstration of Google's Gooru product, a web-based teaching tool that promises to support the curiosity, creativity, and commitment of students; a fireside chat featuring Sam Pitroda and Tarun Das called "India: Competing in the Global Economy Now and in the Future"; a panel titled "Doing Business in India: How Are Global Corporations Succeeding?"; and a keynote address by Ross professor Ramaswamy on the power of co-creation.

The India Business Conference was conceived at Ross in 2009 in response to the strong demand for a global platform to examine one of the world's most prominent emerging markets.

—Leah Sipher-Mann

For more information, contact:
Leah Sipher-Mann, (734) 936-8421, leahjsm@umich.edu