C.K. Prahalad and Strategy as Boundaryless Aspiration

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C.K. Prahalad manifestly qualified as a High Lord of Strategy, Second Generation. News of his death saddened me, and set me to reflecting on the themes running through his work over four decades.

This isn’t as easy an exercise as it is with many other management thinkers, including some great ones. Does it strike you, as it does me, that many a business author writes the same book over and over? Not Prahalad. As he told Adi Ignatius, he liked to move on to the next project, leaving it to a collaborator or someone else to further develop their latest idea.

And his range of subjects was wide. Until I read his C.V. on the University of Michigan site, I’d forgotten that his first two books, back in 1974, were on healthcare management.

Others have, I’m sure, done a more thorough study of his work. But as a student of his contributions to strategy, I keep hearing a few recurrent notes in his writing. The dominant theme is what I’d call “boundaryless aspiration,” or, more precisely, a summons to think beyond conventional boundaries, geographical or intellectual. (Funny, the klutzy title of this post was running around in my head even before I read the blog by Ron Askenas recalling how Prahalad had graciously written the introduction to The Boundaryless Organization.)

In 1987, Prahalad and co-author Yves Doz published The Multinational Mission, which explored how to keep the imperatives of global competitiveness in mind while at the same time taking into account how local governments and conditions modify those imperatives. No “global vs. local, choose one” here. The book also aimed to get past the hoary distinction between strategy formulation and implementation, in part by keeping a prescient focus on corporate capabilities.

The famous call to arms Prahalad and Gary Hamel would proclaim in the late 1980s, first under the banner “strategic intent,” then “core competencies,” was, among other things, an occasionally acid assault on previous notions of strategy as numbers- and models-bound, timorous, and altogether uninspiring. What you needed, they maintained, was an “animating dream,” along the lines of “encircle your largest competitor” or “dominate the world market for your product.” Don’t just struggle to achieve competitive advantage; invent the future of your industry, arming yourself with “bundles of skills and technologies” — those core competencies — that will make you a world-beater.

And what is The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Value with Customers, co-authored with Venkat Ramaswamy and published in 2004, if not an appeal to get beyond traditional notions of the boundaries of the corporation? Stop thinking of customers as somebody “out there,” to whom you sell stuff. Bring them inside, partner with them, to co-create what they truly want or need. Especially in a world where companies find themselves increasingly caught up in what Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff labeled “co-opetition” — sometimes competing against the very enterprises you also sell to — co-creation offered a tantalizing bridge across occasionally perilous divides.

Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid may be the biggest boundary buster of them all. In it this son of south India called on large multinational companies to see beyond their historical notions of geography, market attractiveness, and corporate purpose. This not out of some pallid do-gooder motive, but because huge, inspiring opportunities awaited them in the dusty villages and crowded cities of the developing world.

Through most of its intellectual history, strategy has been a pretty cold-blooded discipline — the pursuit of often disillusioning realities born of ruthless empiricism, a matter of devising microeconomic models to understand what was going on, then level-headedly calculating how competitive advantage was to be achieved. Truth to tell, sometimes as I read C.K.’s work it seemed to me he rather stinted on the analytic and quantitative, sacrificing this to the hortatory and inspirational. (In our conversations, which I remember fondly, the hortatory, sometimes bordering on the didactic, had a way of winning out.) But then, he was calling on us to look up and through such high windows, past our usual sense of limitations, beyond the tired dualities that keep us mired down here, well short of what he could see.

April 28, 2010

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