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Reference No. 18/003 Publication Year 2018
Author(s) LO W H, Ailie K Y Tang, Chan Wing Wah
Company Alibaba
Industry Retail & Wholesale, Internet Software and Services
Geographic setting China
Functional Area Global / Chinese Culture; Strategy/ General Management; Innovation/ Entrepreneurship


It is not an understatement to say that Jack Ma is a legend in China. At the age of 53, he is the wealthiest person, not only in China, but in Asia. Forbes latest ranking put him at world’s number eighteen[1] He co-founded the Alibaba Group (“Alibaba”), the world’s biggest e-commerce group and a conglomerate that owns a diverse portfolio of online and offline businesses. Apart from being a successful businessman, he is determined to live life to the fullest. He self-financed himself to paint, to sing, and to act in movies with famous artists. But perhaps most importantly, he is one of the few elite Chinese that are truly influential outside the political system of the world’s second largest economic entity. When U.S. officials criticized China at a conference in New York in July 2017, Jack Ma stood up for the country, and boldly stated that “Chinese culture is based on the philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism (儒釋道 “the Three Teachings”).  When every one of you criticizes China, has anyone, amongst the twenty-something attendees today, read a chapter of Laozi’s Dao De Jing (‎道德經) or that of Confucius’s Analects (論語)? If you do not understand another country’s culture, you do not have the right to criticize it.”

Under the direction of Jack Ma, Alibaba has grown from a minuscule operation in Jack Ma’s apartment in 1999 to a global conglomerate with a revenue of US$23 billion. Along the way, Jack Ma has propelled Alibaba to overcome infinite number of technical and financial challenges, and to win a war against to become the world’s largest e-commerce conglomerate. Recent years, Alibaba has fought several heated battles with its major competitor, the Tencent Group, in its home country. Both companies have scrambled for market share of different lines of businesses in China: from online retail to online payments, from ride-sharing to bike-sharing. With a growing and vibrant Chinese home market, the competition is just part of business as usual that does not take up too much of Jack Ma’s attention. His major focus is to take Alibaba to the global stage and grow. To guide him through the challenges facing this Herculean task, Jack Ma resorts to the Three Teachings, which gives him insights and backs him in his sound decision making.

What is the key wisdom that Jack Ma has taken from the Three Teachings? How does these insights guide him and Alibaba to success? To win on the global stage, Alibaba has to replicate the acceptance of the Chinese community among the global community. In what ways can the Three Teachings help Jack Ma and his conglomerate? With the United States accusing Alibaba as one of “the world's most notorious markets for counterfeit goods”, can the philosophies of the Three Teachings help?

Learning Objective

The Three Teachings and their relationship to business and management has become an area of academic discussion and research. This interest may partly due to their “enduring significance” in Asian culture, and partly to the sizeable number of people, mostly in Asia, whose behaviour in the business and management contexts are influenced by their philosophies. For Masters’ students who are also seasoned practitioners, a case illustrating the positive impacts of the Three Teachings on Jack Ma and Alibaba — a well-known global figure and a highly profitable company with a solid growth trajectory — should provide a context for dynamic class discussions to help them internalize the pragmatic implications of the philosophy of the Teachings.

The objective is to help students develop their own strategic thinking and skills to help facilitate their business and management success. To achieve this objective, three themes are chosen to sharpen the focus of the class:

to enable students to appreciate the implications of the Three Teachings on leadership and people management;
to develop students’ ability to steer the company in the face of fierce competition,
and their ability to develop strategy to leapfrog the company on a scale unimaginable in the pre-internet-enabled era.  

With the development of the internet-and-cloud-enabled business world, doing business on a global scale is no longer the privilege of international operations of scale. Through the illustration of Alibaba and Jack Ma, and how Jack Ma internalizes the essence of the Three Teachings and applies them to the business world, students are expected to form their own insights and to develop skills:

  1. to lead organization development to exploit opportunities presented by internet-and-cloud-enabled business world; and
  2. for effective management of business stakeholders and partners from different cultural and social background.