Brian A. Wong gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Alibaba’s meteoric rise in a new book

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A longtime Alibaba exec and former special assistant to Jack Ma gives a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s meteoric rise in a new book

  • Brian A. Wong is a long-time Alibaba executive and former special assistant to Jack Ma, the company’s founder.
  • In a new book, Wong details Ma’s management ethos and how Alibaba’s success lessons can be applied by others.
  • This is a book review. The thoughts expressed are those of the writer.

Brian Wong joined Alibaba as its first American employee shortly after meeting CEO Jack Ma in 1999, the same year the trailblazing e-commerce behemoth was founded. In “The Tao of Alibaba: Inside the Chinese Digital Giant that is Changing the World,” Wong offers to reveal the “secret sauce” behind the company’s breathtaking rise and argues that Alibaba’s synthesis of the best of Eastern and Western traditions provides a blueprint not only for companies seeking to replicate its success — but also for making the world a better place.

The animating principle behind Alibaba was Ma’s commitment to “expanding opportunities for China’s huge number of industrious SMEs” (small and medium-sized enterprises), Wong writes. Ma believed that “in markets dominated by large corporations and state-owned enterprises, technology could be the great equalizer” by connecting small Chinese wholesalers to business buyers.

But even in well-developed economies, reaching and serving SMEs effectively is notoriously difficult and expensive. In China, where few had bank accounts or credit cards, the challenges were even greater.

The story of how Alibaba overcame these obstacles and built on this B2B platform to also create the leading consumer

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The Tao of Alibaba

marketplace, first vanquishing eBay and then Amazon in the Chinese market, is an extraordinary one.

It’s not, however, the real focus of Wong’s book.

Alibaba’s unique organizational culture

Instead, he wants to demonstrate how the company’s approach to aligning its mission-driven organizational design to the needs of customers has broader application.

This involves a lot of lists and diagrams and a mix of references to Taoist philosophy, well-known business school professors, and military leaders. The company leadership model, according to Wong, “is built on empowerment, humility, mental dexterity, empathy, and, not least, self-knowledge.” How to operationalize these laudable qualities is not always clear, and “The Tao of Alibaba” is chock full of examples and frameworks in which the company’s hard-nosed key performance indicators (KPIs) are balanced by instinct and broader corporate or social values.

This can be illuminating — like when Wong describes Alibaba’s  “dual track” performance evaluations, which encompass an assessment of both business results and adherence to company values. Sometimes, however, the level of detail in the book can be exhausting. Not much was added, for instance, by being told that employees’ value adherence was initially graded on a scale of 1-5, but since 2014 rated A, B or C.

There are a number of striking parallels between “The Tao of Alibaba” and last year’s book “Working Backwards,” which extolled the virtues of the very different management philosophy of Amazon. No one can argue with the remarkable results of either company. Both books were written by former employees and, while not formally “authorized,” clearly had the help and support of their previous corporate overlords. Both books argue that the companies’ respective practices and processes can be effectively applied by others to achieve similar success. But both books leave the reader with a fundamental unanswerable question — are the stunning accomplishments of these companies a function of their articulated management theories, or the force of personality of their unique charismatic leader?

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Alibaba has made efforts to institutionalize Jack Ma’s ethos

In “The Tao of Alibaba,” the remarkable Jack Ma turns up in most chapters contributing an enigmatic quote or an unexpected directive, only some of which seem to have much to do with the detailed strategic and organizational framework Wong is describing. In fairness, however, Alibaba seems to have taken a number of concrete steps to institutionalize Ma’s ethos. Wong was at one point responsible for the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy, established to indoctrinate the next generation of company management in its culture, and the Alibaba Global Initiative, to train entrepreneurs in emerging markets to apply the Alibaba digital mode. What’s more, a majority of Alibaba’s board is nominated by the Alibaba Partnership — a group of 38 company culture carriers whose new members must secure approval of 75% of the existing partners, according to the book.

Like Steve Jobs, Jack Ma was haunted by the decline of once great technology companies like Hewlett Packard after the departure of their founding team. Alibaba’s stock has fallen 80% since Ma stepped off the board and largely disappeared from public view in October 2020, after making a speech that angered Chinese authorities.

Time will tell whether the systems and structures he put in place will be enough to preserve the unique organization and culture he established.

Jonathan A. Knee is a professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School and a senior advisor at Evercore. His most recent book is “The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans.


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Source: Business Insider

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