Featured case:
Jack Ma at Alibaba: Building a Learning Organisation

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The case

AndrewBurgessWho – the protagonist

Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of Alibaba.


Jack Ma built up Alibaba, a Chinese company owning 10 online businesses, from humble beginnings in his apartment, with his students, to a company floating on New York’s Stock Exchange (NYSE) and raising $25 billion, the largest stock market flotation in history.


ali babaJack felt his work was done with Alibaba and announced plans to step down from the $420 billion Chinese internet company, to pursue philanthropy in education. Jack and the leadership team believe they have built a culture and approach to strategy which will live on beyond Ma’s retirement.


Jack started Alibaba in 1999 with 17 others after being impressed by the entrepreneurial culture he found on a trip to California.

By 2014 the company was floating on the NYSE and in 2018 Jack was confident he could leave the company in safe hands.


Alibaba was founded in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. The company would go on to transform the way Chinese people shop and pay for things.

Key quote

“I’m very proud that Alibaba now has the structure, corporate culture, governance and system for grooming talent that allows me to step away without disruption.” – Jack Ma, speaking at his retirement press conference.

What next?

Despite Alibaba’s success they still face challenging times.

The new CEO Daniel Zhang is seen as a safe pair of hands and just what Alibaba, a vision-heavy company, needs.

China’s trade war with the US and domestic rivalry with e-commerce giant Tencent are headaches he has to deal with.

Interested in finding out more?

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The authors

ali baba

Herminia Ibarra and Jessica Spungin

Herminia talks about the appeal of Jack Ma as a case protagonist and how students are enthralled by Alibaba.

Fascinating protagonist

Herminia said: “I met Jack Ma a few years ago and found him fascinating. Later, I was on the FT Best Business Book of the Year jury, the year that The House that Jack Ma built was a finalist. Finally, I was looking for materials for teaching my Masters students about organisational culture, and saw the documentary film Crocodile on the Yangtze, about Alibaba’s early years and its David vs Goliath fight with eBay.

“I assigned the film and then decided to write a case to teach alongside it. It turned out to be the perfect vehicle for teaching a joint OB/Strategy class with my co-author, LBS Professor Jessica Spungin.”

Case length

Herminia continued: “It was challenging to keep the case to a reasonable page length, as there were so many interesting things that could have been included.”

Student appeal

Ali babaShe added: “The case was written for the classroom and it was a huge hit from the first time we taught it. Everyone is fascinated with Alibaba. The students loved discussing OB and strategy issues in tandem, while our Chinese students were delighted to have a protagonist from their country – and participated much more than they ever have done in class.”

Discussing charisma

Herminia concluded: “Students are taken by Jack Ma’s charisma and naturally ask “how does this apply to me?” That provides an opportunity to discuss what charisma is, what aspects can be cultivated and how ‘charismatic’ leaders often work in tandem with less charismatic ‘managerial’ types – as Ma did.”

About the authors

Herminia Ibarra is the Charles Handy Chair in Organisational Behaviour; Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.
tw @HerminiaIbarra

Jessica Spungin is Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School.
tw @SpunginJessica


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