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Farewell, C.K. Prahalad

Some of you might have heard the sad news that management writer C.K. Prahalad has passed away.

His Wikipedia entry notes that:

“Prahalad has been among top ten management thinkers in every major survey for over ten years. Business Week said of him: “a brilliant teacher at the University of Michigan, he may well be the most influential thinker on business strategy today.””

In the sustainable business world we know him best of course for his seminal work: “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits”, a book which for many was a turning point away from the ‘aid not trade’ paradigm with regard to richer countries helping smaller ones.

That’s not to say that ‘trade not aid’ now dominates. For various reasons, many political, it sadly does not. But “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” helped us understand even more clearly why it makes sense.

Prahalad’s theory of the poor as entrepreneurs had its critics. Some said it overlooked the fact that most people are not cut out to run businesses and are better suited to being employees of larger enterprises, and that too much focus on Bottom of the Pyramid finance and structures obscured better opportunities to lift poorer people from poverty.

Whilst no-one solution can ever be the whole story, we’ll remember C.K. Prahalad for two great achievements:

First, he popularised the idea that we should stop seeing the poor as victims and see them as customers, as entrepreneurs and as a whole new market for innovation.

Secondly, he added serious weight to the arguments of others who had said similar things in the past but not had the traction that someone of his stature could help provide.

It’s true that sustainability as a business strategy only went truly mainstream (i.e. Fortune 500 and MBA programmes) when publications such as Harvard Business Review began to take it seriously, some five years ago.

So it is that Prahalad’s work added huge weight to the idea that we should look at poorer nations as trading partners, rather than poorer cousins.

He will be missed, but remembered.

UPDATE: Here’s a 2004 interview with him in the Economist, fascinating.

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