January 3, 2011 Leave a comment
“People without a sense of values can make a great deal of money, but they will have an ache in their heart”.
With this quote by Jack Ma, one of the contributors of this month HBR special report, let me wish you a happy sustainable and responsible 2011!
In a special report, The HBR agenda 2011, published by the Harvard Business Review this month, two dozen business and management leaders explain what projects they’ll take on in 2011.
The contributors address a broad range of topics; most of them related to the future of work, as well as leadership issues, such as succession planning, the decision-making process at CEO level, or the management of new forms of teams, multicultural or highly flexible like the “sand dune teams” described by Harvard University Professor J. Richard Hackman.
2011: The year of the $300 house?
First of all, Daniel H. Pink, the author of various books about the changing world of work, wonders if companies “have reached the limit of the profit motive” and asks if “the path out of our economic doldrums” will come from the “awakening of a sense of purpose in our enterprises” rather than a “tighter focus on profits, processes or productivity.”
2011: Celebrating the Year of Sustainability in China?
One of the other contributors of the HBR special report, Jack Ma, Founder and CEO of China’s Alibaba Group describes the effort that his company is undertaking to drive a sustainability strategy that can benefit not only to the Group itself but to China in general.
“A company our size has a responsibility to do the right thing” writes the founder of the Alibaba Group, which employees around 20000 people in about 60 countries, adding that “people without a sense of values can make a great deal of money, but they will have an ache in their heart”.
The Chinese Group, founded in 1999, is a family of Internet-based businesses that includes business-to-business international trade, online retail and payment platforms and data-centric cloud computing services. The scale of the company is quite impressive; it’s like Ebay for business to business (B2B) transactions, like Amazon for business to consumer (B2C) transactions, like Paypal, with an escrow function, like Google for affiliate marketing, and they also run China Yahoo! and are expanding into many other areas.
One thing that I found remarkable is that Alibaba decided, 2 years ago, to ban trade in shark fins on all its sites which was a particularly difficult decision in the local cultural context. I read the HBR article the very same day I watched for the first time the amazing documentary “Oceans”. The movie is a wake-up call. It shows how beautiful life is in the Oceans, but it also explains how fragile it is. There’s a sequence where sharks are being brought out of the sea and their fins cut off just to be used for soup. The bodies are subsequently thrown back into the sea meaning that these sharks have been condemned to death.
After reading the HBR article I decided to find out more about the Group’s sustainability and CSR activities. I checked its website and read its 2009 Annual Report, as the company, unfortunately, didn’t produce any separate Sustainability or CSR report. The amount of CSR information provided in the Annual Report is quite light with only 4 pages dedicated to this topic for a total of 152 pages.
However, it doesn’t seem to be because the Group hasn’t been involved in this area. On the contrary, browsing the web I found quite a lot of activities that deserve to be highlighted.
Alibaba in the Community
Alibaba is engaged in the development and support of local communities through its Ali-Loan program, introducing proprietary credit scoring models developed by the Group to facilitate loans made by their partner banks to our customers in China. Since the launch of Ali-Loan, the Group say they have facilitated more than RMB6 billion of loans to more than 3,000 of their customers.
It also provides e-commerce and management training and education services for small businesses and individuals in China through both offline learning centers and an online learning platform.
Community Volunteerism and Sichuan Earthquake Relief
After the tragic Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, Alibaba reacted immediately by sourcing urgently needed goods that were key to the rescue efforts, launched an online campaign for donations from its employees and members of its websites and formed a relief team made up of employees and volunteers from outside the company.
The team made a number of trips to Sichuan to provide first-hand earthquake relief and delivered a large shipment of stationery supplies donated by employees which benefited nearly 1,000 local students. As winter approached, the team also organized a clothing donation drive for the earthquake victims and Alibaba waived the membership fees for supplier members based in the earthquake areas, in order to help them get back into the business of providing jobs and economic stability to their communities.
Alibaba.com has been promoting environmental issues from within the organization by running a series of campaigns under the name “Orange Alibaba, Green Earth”. The campaigns aim to promote energy and resource conservation by its employees. The company also launched a “Tradeshow Alliance Environmental Protection Fund” in October 2007 to promote environmentally friendly and energy-efficient tradeshows. The proceeds were donated to the China Environmental Protection Foundation.
In the HBR article Jack Ma writes that employees who demonstrate “a commitment to the environment might merit a better parking place”, which is, undoubtedly, in China’s crowded cities, an outstanding employee benefit. But, if I may suggest an alternative, rewarding employees’ commitment towards environment with free or subsidized electric bicycles or “e-bikes”, would be more consistent with Environmental Protection, rather than encouraging employees to commute to work by car.
In May 2010, the Alibaba Group announced that it would begin in 2010 to earmark 0.3 percent of annual revenues to fund efforts designed to spur environmental awareness and conservation in China and around the world.
Integrity and Compliance
Finally, in its company website, Alibaba Group, says it’s committed to the highest standards of business conduct in its relationships with each of its stakeholders, including its customers, suppliers, shareholders and other business partners. This commitment is reflected in the Alibaba Code of Business Conduct, requesting employees to conduct all business with outside parties in a manner that reflects the Group values of integrity, fairness and trust.
In the HBR report, Jack Ma writes that he believes that, “in China, environmental change will come about only through education.”
With an average employee age of 27, like many companies in China, the Alibaba Group has a great opportunity: through its corporate sustainability strategy and CSR activities, it can infuse strong values that will shape the future of the company’s, and the country’s, workforce and leadership.