The Tao of Alibaba: A book review by Bob Morris

The Tao of Alibaba: Inside the Chinese DIgital Giant That Is Changing the World
Brian A. Wong
Public Affairs (November 2022)

Where and how to achieve and then sustain great success in “The New Digital Frontier”

As you may already know, the Chinese word “tao” refers to the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang and signifying the way, or code of behavior, that is in harmony with the natural order. Lao-tse’s interpretation of Tao in the Tao Te Ching developed into the philosophical religion of Taoism.

As those who read my reviews, interviews, and commentaries already know, this is my favorite passage:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know.
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Keep this excerpt from Tao Te Ching in mind as you learn about Alibaba, a company that as Brian Wong explains, “not just shaped a huge industry, e-commerce, but also impacted an entire country, China…[Its founder] was Jack Ma…who has described his unlikely path as being like ‘a blind man on the back of a blind tiger.'”

Wong wrote this book in order to “make the case that today’s technological era offers us the potential to become part of the solution to many of today’s global problems and that the ethos of Alibaba has developed and shared the road map. Seeing is believing, and Alibaba has shown time after time…In short, the Tao of Alibaba approach enables a mind-set and way of thinking that liberates a group of individuals to rigorously and effectively pursue a common cause they all believe in.”

He is uniquely well-qualified to explain Alibaba’s building blocks of growth, ecosystem, founding and then refining its Tao, the nature and extent of Alibaba’s interaction with the West, its mission/vision/values, strategy (“to provide a safer, cheaper, more convenient, accessible, entertaining, and fun experience to all Chinese consumers by creating the largest online consumer platform and community”), its organization and culture, performance management, “leadership without leading” (see excerpt from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching), inclusive development, globalization (“the students become teachers”), Alibaba’s “new road ahead.”

Perhaps Alibaba is best viewed, understood, and appreciated as an exemplar of a new type of organization, what is generally referred to as a decentralized autonomous organization or DAO. As Wong explains, a DAO is “built around rules on transparent, shared software stored on public, permissionless blockchain without central control and without strict boundaries. They are collectively operated.”

I agree with Jack Ma and Brian Wong: it is critical in months and years to come that what “we develop today is not just designed for the present but also for the future, keeping in mind market needs now and moving forward.”


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