In Alibaba we have a saying, 教学相长, this is translated to mean Teaching as Learning. Alibaba staff teach each other new skills and new ways of thinking each and every day, and teaching, and being taught, are central to our culture. In fact, rather than calling each other colleagues（同事），Alibaba staff refer to each other as classmates (同学)，this reflects our belief that we are continually learning as we move through our careers at the company, and that the learning process is one shared with all Alibaba employees. On our first day in the AGLA program, we were encouraged to open our minds and be willing to relearn many of the skills we had previously learned in an Alibaba context.
Indeed, since joining the AGLA program, we have done a lot of learning, as witnessed by previous blog posts. We have had the chance to learn about modern and ancient Chinese history, about the new China that is leading the way in technological innovation, about the challenges and opportunities facing China’s rural areas and of course about the many different business units that constitute Alibaba. This has been a fascinating journey and one that has given all AGLA participants a unique insight into the country and the company that would be hard to gain elsewhere.
Yet you will notice that there is something missing from this type of learning; we are not doing the teaching. In light of this lack of teaching, the AGLA decided to pursue an educational program across the 3 Alibaba campuses at which they are currently working. Led by 3 of my colleagues, Qian, Shanshan and Dream, each session sees an AGLA member take the opportunity to teach local Hangzhou colleagues about an international topic in which they possess some expertise. I was fortunate enough to teach my Ant Financial colleagues about the causes and potential consequences of Brexit in session # 21. While preparing my session, I really came to appreciate the meaning of the term Teaching as Learning. I felt I had a good grasp on the complexities of Britain leaving the EU prior to starting work on the presentation, but as I dug deeper into the material, I found myself learning more and more about the nuances of EU law, the difficulties of breaking up a major financial center and about the internal political trends that led to Brexit. By the time I delivered my presentation, I was amazed at the amount of new knowledge I had acquired about the subject. Yet it still wasn’t enough; during the presentation, my colleagues asked questions that I hadn’t thought of, and which forced me to do further research after the presentation, something which inspired me to write this blog post.
My AGLA colleagues have taught about topics as diverse as e-commerce opportunities in Africa, startup fundraising, business English communication and understanding the American consumer. In total we have now delivered over 20 sessions across the Alibaba campuses, helping to fulfill our mission of connecting Alibaba to the world and the world to Alibaba. Indeed, when I talk to people about the AGLA program, there is often (rightly) a large focus on the experience that we have as AGLA members coming to live and work in China, however, this misses a critical piece of the AGLA puzzle. One of the key impacts of the program is to give Chinese colleagues access to new ideas and thinking from outside of China, and to encourage them to think with a more global mindset. This can sometimes be challenging, with the size of China’s internal market making it hard to draw people’s attention to distant lands that do not possess such tremendous scale. But gradually, with the launch of our educational program, and with the strong ties that have been built through working together in our rotations, the program is helping to open the minds of Chinese colleagues to opportunities that exist around the world and many are even starting to consider the possibility of working overseas. If Alibaba is to successfully serve 2bn consumers globally, it will need staff both in China and outside of China who possess a global mindset and who possess a mutual understanding. Through our sharing sessions and through possessing a Teaching as Learning mindset we can help each other to meet this goal.
Gary Topp is a graduate of the University of Chicago; he lives and breathes economics. He has previously worked on economic development issues at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and for CGAP at the World Bank.