A tribute by Dan Schendel
If you knew CK Prahalad, you will remember his smile, his eagerness to listen to what you had to say, and the inevitable insight he managed to offer for whatever the subject you were discussing. How was he able to always do that, you would wonder, and you would leave his presence admiring his skill and care in giving you significant ideas to take with you. The field of strategic management surely lost one of its best conceptual thinkers last April, the person, sometimes working with others, who gave us concepts like core competencies, strategic intent, and more recently, the bottom of the pyramid and its social importance.
It wasn’t just the conceptual imagination and its product that distinguished CK. He was willing and able to make these concepts and ideas come alive for student and practitioner alike. His classes at the University of Michigan were always oversubscribed, and his difficulty in saying “no” to anyone gave him pause when he had to turn down someone who wanted to bring a friend or family member to hear him teach. If you were lucky enough to be around him, as student or colleague, or just as a dinner companion, you came away challenged, filled with ambition to do better, and certainly wiser for the experience.
CK was a consultant to many prominent companies around the world who listened and used his ideas to better their firms’ prospects and performance. AT&T, Philips, a number of Silicon Valley firms, and others on the international scene were clients who listened and learned from him. What CK was able to do, something that most scholars find difficult to do, was to take his ideas to the world around him and see them applied to practical problems faced by companies trying to compete and win. Few are able to be insightful as well as know how those insights could be applied and made useful in the rough and tumble of a world of intense competition, rapid innovation and change.
The honors given to CK were many and varied, and importantly were international in their scope. His native country of India saw him for the expert he was and bestowed highest honor on him, something you know he valued greatly if you had the opportunity to visit his home and see his study, and it was spacious, covered from floor to ceiling with awards, plaques, pictures, and photos of dignitaries of all kind and description. It was to these awards from his native land that he drew your attention and showed his pride. This was similarly obvious when he convened a spectacular SMS conference and invited the academic world to Hyderabad, India in 2008. His obituary was carried in many publications around the world, perhaps the most insightful and expansive of which was that of the Economist in its April 24th issue. In all of the recognition taken of his life you read of the accolades given, the honor bestowed, and how a very practical scholar impacted the hard challenges of the real world. As the Economist noted, “The world of management theory has more than its share of charlatans, but CK Prahalad was the genuine article.” Indeed he was.
Dan Schendel Purdue University
Surely, CK will be missed, not just for his conceptual gifts, or his teaching, or his ability to impact practice. He will be missed as much for his willingness to give of his time and ideas to furthering the intellectual life of others, including his belief in and contributions to the Strategic Management Society, where he served as a Co- Chair in 1995 for the Phoenix Conference, for the many times he appeared on the SMS programs, and for his contributions to the SMS through his work on the Board of Directors. He was the co-winner of the first SMJ Best Paper Prize in 1992, in his paper co-authored with Rich Bettis, “The Dominant Logic.” Yes, he was a scholar, but at the same time he was just as significant as a contributor to the world of strategic management practice. He would have liked that description of his professional life.