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On the verge of something extraordinary

On the verge of something extraordinary

According to the global guru ranking, the Thinkers 50, published by The Times, C.K. Prahalad is “the most influential living business thinker in the world”. Prahalad believes that business leaders need to start thinking about their marketplace as all six billion people on the planet. Des Dearlove talked to him about his latest thinking and how it was influenced by his early years in India.

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Born in the town of Coimbatore in the Tamil Nadu state in India, Coimbatore Krishna Rao (C.K.) Prahalad studied physics at the University of Madras (now Chenai), followed by work as a manager in a branch of the Union Carbide battery company. Prahalad then went to the Indian Institute of Management, before earning a doctorate in business administration from Harvard. He taught both in India and America, eventually joining the faculty of the University of Michigan, where he is now is the Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Strategy at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Prahalad’s Harvard Business Review article “The core competence of the corporation” (May-June, 1990) introduced the term “core competencies” to the management lexicon. His book Competing for the Future, written with Gary Hamel, became a bestseller and set the strategy agenda for a generation of CEOs. In 2004, he published two books. The Future of Competition, written with Venkat Ramaswamy, introduced the notion of “co-creation”; while The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid argued that the world’s poor (the “bottom of the pyramid”) represented an untapped market worth up to $13 trillion a year. In his most recent book, The New Age of Innovation, Prahalad continues his remarkable intellectual journey, describing a new competitive landscape that is based on two simple principles, “N=1” and “R=G”.

You grew up in India as one of nine children. What did those early experiences teach you?

Growing up in India is an extraordinary preparation for management, for three reasons. One, you grow up in large families so you always have to make compromises; you have to learn to accommodate. And India is a very diverse culture, in terms of languages, religions and income levels – so you start adjusting and coping with diversity at a very personal level as a child.

The second point is that I was lucky because my parents were academically oriented. My father was a judge and a great scholar. He told us very early in life, there is only one thing that when you give more, you have more – and that’s knowledge. That has stuck with me.

Then, in the plant in Union Carbide, I had to work with communist unions. I had to set rates – I was a young industrial engineer – and negotiating rates with the unions taught me a lot. They’re very smart people, they’re very thoughtful; and if you’re fair and honest, you could deal with them in an interesting way. So it taught me not to think of these groups as adversaries, but to collaborate, be honest, be fair.

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Dearlove is currently CEO at Suntop Media. His work has appeared in publications worldwide, including The Financial Times, Across the Board, and The Industry Standard.

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C.K. Prahalad

Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad (August 8, 1941 – April 16, 2010) was a globally known figure who consulted the top management of many of the world's foremost companies. He was the Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Corporate Strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business in the University of Michigan.

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