Born Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad on 8th of August 1941 in a Tamil family. His father was a Tamil scholar and judge in British Madras (now Chennai). He completed his BSc degree in physics from Loyola College, part of University of Madras at the age of 19. After his graduation he joined Union Carbide and worked for four years. Four years later in 1964 he enrolled for the pioneer batch of Postgraduate Programme in Business Administration at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and graduated in 1966. in 1966 and followed that with a doctor of business administration from Harvard Business School in 1975.
At Harvard Business School, Prahalad wrote a doctoral thesis on multinational management in two and a half years, graduating with a DBA degree in 1975. He returned to his Alma mater the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad for a short time after graduating from Harvard. He went back to US again with an offer from Ross School of Business Administration, University of Michigan in 1977, eventually earning the University’s highest distinction, Distinguished University Professor, in 2005.
During this period, he achieved the reputation of being one of the world’s most influential business thinkers and one of the most beloved teachers at the University of Michigan, creating a huge impact on business and business education around the world.
His influence grew in 1990, when he co-authored an article "The Core Competence of the Corporation” in the Harvard Business Review with Ross Gary Hamel. " A watershed in the field of strategic management, the article asserted that executives should "identify, cultivate, and exploit the core competencies that make growth possible." Their thinking encouraged executives at complex corporations to think of their organizations as a portfolio of competencies rather than a portfolio of businesses. It influenced a wide array of business leaders grappling with the strategic implications of an ever more integrated global economy. Prahalad and Hamel made a case for robust strategic thinking in the 1994 book “Competing for the Future”, which analysed how established market leaders tend to lose ground to innovative upstarts. The book famously looked at how IBM was blindsided by Apple, failing to see the future of the personal computer because it was too focused on maintaining its leadership in the mainframe business.
Prahalad was a pioneer in Base of the Pyramid studies, an area of research that explores how businesses might pursue sustainable growth while playing a role in alleviating poverty. His 2004 book “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits”, is widely considered indispensable reading for executives and scholars who wish to understand emerging markets. The book presents 12 case studies, some of them co-authored by Ross MBA students, which illustrate how some companies are turning a profit while bringing enormous social and material improvements to some of the world’s poorest populations.
CK Prahalad during those days of Y2K went from company to company, industry associations to media interviews, urging Indian companies to go up the value chain promoting Value minus pricing shifting away from “Cost plus pricing”. He would thunder in his trademark, booming, voice to room full of software industry leaders “If you were a painter, how should you price your painting?” In the next moment, he was giving them a good bashing for not understanding the essence of what he called “Value minus pricing”. The way the software industry priced its output in the 1990s was akin to a painter charging for the oil and the canvas, and then some more for the labour, all at actual. “Going by that logic, how much do you think should be the price of an MF Hussain painting? You need to respect your own work if you expect the world to take note of it. Looking back, he was asking midgets to behave like giants. But today, many of the very same midgets have transformed themselves into giants!
C.K.‘s debut column in HBR was drawn from a lecture he first delivered to his students in 1977, outlining the duties of the “responsible manager.” It laid out C.K.’s thoughts so succinctly that he made it his annual last lecture for the next 33 years — without changing a word. Indeed, it’s a timeless call for managers to be the best they can. “Leadership,” he concluded, “is about self-awareness, recognizing your failings, and developing modesty, humility, and humanity,” the values he lived by. C.K. co-wrote an important piece for HBR on how sustainability had become the most important driver of business innovation. He had several projects in the pipeline including what turned out to be his final column for HBR, an explanation of why companies so often fail to deal with their most obvious challenges.
In July 2008 the deputy managing editor of Time magazine had organized a discussion in New York City to debate “creative capitalism” — Bill Gates’ idea for spreading the benefits of capitalism to the billions who have been left out. When Gates was asked whom he most wanted with him on the panel, the answer had come back at once: C.K. Prahalad, the brilliant strategy thinker at the University of Michigan. On being asked how he could be so prolific, writing intelligently about so many subjects. His secret, he said, was to collaborate whenever possible with a strong partner. “I work hard and I work quickly,” he said. “But once I’m done with a project, I like to move on to a new one, and leave it to my collaborators to deal with the legacy of the last one.”
His ground breaking 2004 book “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” identified how the world’s poor could be a valuable market. The Thinkers 50 List, published annually by the (U.K.) Times, more than once rated C.K. as the world’s most influential management thinker.
He wanted to see his motherland at par with the developed countries of the world that he straddled with the ease of an eagle. Wherever he went, from boardrooms in the US to think tanks in Europe or in his own country, he would ask people to do two things: to look at why something could not be done very differently and two, raise their expectations from their own selves ten, hundred, and sometimes, a thousand times. He had a unique way to take groups of disbelieving men and women, whipping them into rising above themselves with credible, compelling argument born out of a fine mind and at the end, making them aspire for the higher ground! He invariably did it with the sharpness of a sword, never let his audience feel wounded, instead he let them feel that the future, a higher, meaningful, impactful version of the future, was their entitlement.
Prahalad was co-founder and became CEO of Praja Inc. ("Praja" from a Sanskrit word "Praja" which means "citizen" or "common people"). The company had goals of providing unrestricted access to information for people at the "bottom of the pyramid" and providing a test bed for various management ideas. It eventually laid off a third of its workforce, and was sold to TIBCO. In 2004 Prahalad co-founded management consultancy The Next Practice, to support companies in implementing the strategies outlined in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. At the time of his death he was on the board of TiE, The Indus Entrepreneurs. Prahalad was a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission of the United Nations on Private Sector and Development.
He won the McKinsey Prize four times for the best article in Harvard Business Review and held honorary doctorates in economics, engineering, and business. Among the numerous other awards, he received were the Faculty Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award from the Aspen Institute for contributions to social and environmental stewardship; the Italian Telecom Prize for Leadership in Business and Economic Thinking; Lal Bahadur Shastri Award for Excellence in Management, 2000, presented by the President of India; and many others. He served on several boards, including NCR Corp., Hindustan Lever Ltd., and TVS Capital.
He was the first recipient of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Award for contributions to Management and Public Administration presented by the President of India in 1999.
In 1994, he was presented the Maurice Holland Award from the Industrial Research Institute for an article published in Research-Technology Management titled "The Role of Core Competencies in the Corporation. In 2009, he was awarded Pravasi Bharatiya Sammaan and was named Padma Bhushan 'third highest civilian awards' by the Government of India.
The Southern Regional Headquarters of Confederation of Indian Industry
(CII) was named as Prof C K Prahalad Center in 2011.
At the time of his death he held the title Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Corporate Strategy at Michigan Ross. In addition, he served as distinguished fellow at the William Davidson Institute, where he played an important advisory role for the institute's Base of the Pyramid research initiative. Prahalad twice was ranked the world's most influential business thinker by the "Thinkers 50" published by the leadership consulting firm CrainerDearlove.
Prahalad passed away in San Diego, Calif., on April 16, 2010, at the age of 68. He is survived by his wife, Gayatri Prahalad; son, Murali Prahalad; daughter, Deepa Prahalad; and three grandchildren.