Talent optimization and the agile leader

Will the 996 culture last at Alibaba?

May 29, 2019
3 minute read

Alibaba is one of the most successful companies on the planet, boasting the world’s biggest IPO when it launched in 2014. Jack Ma, its founder, is China’s richest person and possibly even the most famous Chinese entrepreneur. You can’t argue with that kind of success.

Ma recently caused a flutter online for his unabashed endorsement of the 996 culture: working 12 hours a day, six days a week. In a blog post on Weibo—one of the biggest social media platforms in China—he said “If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem.”

If you think this kind of work culture is unsustainable, you’re not the only one. There are many critics of the 996 culture. No matter how much you love your job, working 72 hours a week every week will wear you out. Research shows that long workweeks can cause health problems and mental health issues, as well as impact family relationships.

Note to the reader: We understand that some families struggle to make ends meet, and this means juggling multiple jobs and working 72 hours a week. We understand that employees must do what they need to do to get by, and there’s no shame in honest, hard work to put food on the table. We believe employers should do what they can to pay workers a fair salary so they don’t have to work so much. While we also believe that employees who are engaged do put in discretionary effort on occasion to get a big project done or to solve a client issue, this shouldn’t be the norm.

While working long hours may have contributed to Alibaba’s growth, I’d argue it’s not the main reason the company has been successful.

employee working late

According to Ming Zeng, an early Alibaba executive, what set Alibaba up for success was that they “were truly building an ecosystem: a community of organisms (businesses and consumers of many types) interacting with one another and the environment (the online platform and the larger off-line physical elements).”

All this innovation was—and still is—powered by reams of data generated by businesses on their platform. Jack Ma and the Alibaba team recognize an important truth about conducting business: What works today isn’t going to work tomorrow. Their collection and utilization of data helps fuel their growth for the future.

Now imagine what would be possible if they took the same approach to their talent?

Research tells us that engaged employees are more productive and boost profitability by 21%. If they took the same data-driven approach to optimize their people strategy, there’s a good chance they’d be able to create the same results while creating a better work-life balance for their employees. This is the beauty of talent optimization—it raises the odds of businesses achieving their goals by responsibly using people rather than opinion or common practice.

There is little doubt that Alibaba will continue to grow. The question is whether they realize they’re leaving chunks of growth on the table by not testing other approaches to determine the best people strategy for the business as it grows.

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