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An interview without questions with C K Prahalad

April 17, 2010 23:43 IST

Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad spoke in a measured baritone and asked for feedback on his latest book -- The New Age of Innovation -- which was launched in India in April 2008, almost a month before its scheduled distribution in the United States. The University of Michigan professor listened intently, almost like a student eager to know whether he had gone wrong anywhere. Though I had barely managed to mumble something, Prahalad gave a warm handshake and said, "That's co-creation of value by the author and the reader -- the thesis of my latest book."

It was my first hand experience of the management guru's marketing brilliance. I had gone to interview him and review his book -- quite coincidentally on April 17, the day he died two years later.

The diary where I had listed my questions, however, remained unopened, as Prahalad didn't wait for them. Instead, he gave a one-and-a-half-hour lecture on the theme of his book -- why companies should co-create things with customers. At the end of it all, he smiled to say, "You can put in your questions suitably while filing your copy on my lecture. I know this isn't co-creation, but the greatest management lesson which supersedes all others is do anything that cuts the implementation time."

I must admit at that point I didn't appreciate his sense of humour, but the sheer brilliance of what he said during that one-way conversation left me spellbound. It was also easy to figure out why Prahalad, the author of classics such as Competing for the Future, The Future of Competition and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, had acquired the reputation of an incredibly influential corporate strategist. For, at the end of the two-hour interview conducted at the noisy lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, the formula, "N=1 and R=G" (the main theme of his book), did not sound as daunting any more.

"My formula is fairly simple. CEOs have to act like junior BPO executives: Both have to respond to a situation instantly," Prahalad said.

It should be fairly easy, Prahalad said. For example, "your friendly neighbourhood kirana store owner knows exactly what your needs are; your database is in his head. He knows whether you are creditworthy, whether you have upgraded your soap brand; how many family members you have and their eating habits. He is the ultimate CEO. I want this incredible personalised service to be combined with the efficiencies of mass production. That's co-creation," Prahalad said.

During that conversation, Prahalad talked about Amul, one of his all-time favourite brands which was a model of co-creation through its highly interactive, superefficient supply chain. Amul distributes seven million litres of milk sourced from 2.2 million suppliers every day. In a unique way, farmers are being linked to global markets. It is a classic example of personalised globalisation, something you won't find anywhere in the world. Some of his other favourite companies were however predictable --ICICI bank, Hindustan Unilever, Tata Consultancy Services and Bharti Airtel.

As the interview got over and we walked out of the hotel, Prahalad pointed at the hawkers at the Gateway of India and talked about how virtually every individual was engaged in a business of some kind --whether it is selling single cloves of garlic, or squeezing sugar cane juice. "Intriguing enterprises are tucked into every nook and cranny of India," he said, before his car took him to the next meeting.

Just three days later, I got a call from a Taj executive to say whether I would like to pick up an autographed book left behind by Prahalad, specially for me. I haven't forgotten that wonderful personal gesture of the incredibly smart corporate strategist.

Shyamal Majumdar