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APASS members,SRU-Electronics, StefanV.Raducanu, MyNewsCenterNavigator &FranceWebSharing, Public displays of loyalty from its most elite customers also could help Alibaba buff a reputation hurt by revelations that some of the goods it sells are knockoffs.

The e-commerce giant has lured 100,000 well-heeled Chinese to its APASS rewards program. When members aren't shopping, they're talking up Alibaba.

by Selina_y_wang

Meng Cui Yi spent almost $90,000 at Alibaba’s online mall in the past year. The 33-year-old restaurateur buys pretty much everything there—Burberry apparel, La Mer skincare products, furniture, groceries and more. After Alibaba’s annual Singles' Day sale last year, Meng’s purchases were piled so high outside her Shanghai apartment her businessman husband could barely get in the door.

Meng’s lavish spending habits earned her an invite to Alibaba Passport, or APASS. An exclusive rewards program, APASS is a mashup of Facebook, Amazon Prime and the American Express Black Card. Its 100,000 members get the usual perks—deals, trips, personal service—but are also encouraged to join online communities of shopaholics who blog and talk up Alibaba.

Rolled out about two years ago, APASS has helped Alibaba persuade the well-heeled shoppers trolling its Tmall and Taobao shopping emporiums to keep spending.  That's crucial because the Chinese economy is deteriorating and Alibaba is struggling to maintain rapid-fire growth. Just last week, Singles' Day sales grew at half the pace they did the year before. Meanwhile, the company is trying to ward off growing competition from rivals like JD.com, which is starting to attract urban big-spenders. 

"Standing still is not an option because competitors are nipping at their heels," says Duncan Clark, founder of investment advisory firm BDA China and an early adviser to Alibaba. "It's very much worth their while to take care of the high rollers."

Like any premium rewards program, APASS pushes exclusivity by setting a seemingly high bar for membership. To make the cut, a customer must drop more than $15,000 a year on Alibaba’s e-commerce sites, though the company says members typically spend more than $45,000. Spending is just one criterion. Shoppers also receive a user score, based in part on the frequency and credibility of their interaction with other customers. The higher the score, the more likely they are to be invited to join APASS.

APASS members attend a splashy gala at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai
APASS members attend a splashy gala at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai
Source: Alibaba

"APASS members love to share," says Hai Wang, Alibaba’s head of customer experience and innovation. "Every day in our APASS Members Zone, a lot of members are sharing their daily life stories, shopping tips, showing off their shopping lists et cetera. A good number of APASS members are verified bloggers."

Meng is Alibaba’s dream customer. "I talk to other APASS members every day," she says. "I never actually buy anything from physical stores unless I’m going out with friends or something." Meng’s loyalty got her invited to the inaugural APASS annual meeting, one of 50 members selected. Held in May at Mandarin Oriental hotel in Shanghai, the splashy event included a buffet dinner, lucky draw and an awards presentation—at which Maserati was voted Most Beloved Brand. Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tung gave a speech.

Rewards buy loyalty and then are turned into marketing opportunities. In early September, Alibaba took 10 APASS members on an all-expenses paid, nine-day vacation to Italy where they visited a Maserati factory, La Perla’s flagship lingerie store and vineyards operated by vintner Mezzacorona. Portions of the all-expenses-paid trip were streamed live on the Tmall app and Youku Tudou, a video site Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma acquired last year. The company says the vineyard tour was viewed 400,000 times and boosted sales.

Visiting Italy's Mezzacorona vineyard, on an all-expenses-paid trip for APASS members. 
Visiting Italy's Mezzacorona vineyard, on an all-expenses-paid trip for APASS members. 
Source: Alibaba

Public displays of loyalty from its most elite customers also could help Alibaba buff a reputation hurt by revelations that some of the goods it sells are knockoffs. While global luxury brands like Maserati and Burberry have official storefronts on Alibaba's Tmall, the e-commerce giant also relies on fees from its Taobao platform for independent retailers, which have been known to sell counterfeit merchandise. Investors and international brands say Alibaba hasn't done enough to crack down on fakes, and a retail association recently suggested that the company be put back on a U.S. government blacklist. Getting customers to buy more upscale stuff could help persuade more luxury brands to sell on Alibaba.

Marshall Meyer, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says APASS is "a very clever form of sales promotion. It's a great publicity stunt.

Alibaba says it will double the number of APASS members next year. It's an audacious target but perhaps achievable given the explosion of well-heeled consumers who increasingly shun brick-and-mortar stores. While e-commerce now accounts for 15 percent of private consumption, Boston Consulting Group expects it to reach 24 percent in the next five years. APASS member Sukin Su, 27, buys everything from Chilean blueberries to Gucci handbags on Tmall—racking up as much as $50,000 a year. "I tell everyone why don't you all shop on Tmall," she says. "It's fast, and if you have any problems they can solve it for you."



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The 4 Collaboration Dimensions, Digital Workplace Collaboration Means More Than Documents,Yet when people write about "collaboration," they make a tacit assumption about what form the collaboration takes.


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Digital Workplace


The 4 Collaboration Dimensions, Digital Workplace Collaboration Means More Than Documents,Yet when people write about "collaboration," they make a tacit assumption about what form the collaboration takes.

Digital Workplace Collaboration Means More Than Documents

moving a boat together
People assume collaboration comes in one shape and size. That's not the case PHOTO: Phil Dolby

It’s tempting to think that a suite of tools like Office 365 or IBM Connections will meet your collaboration needs. 

However, when I run focus groups to explore digital workplace requirements, asking the question “Where do you do your work?” is often revealing. Rarely is the response the intranet or a social network. Sometimes people answer "email," but more often than not the answer is "in a specialist system." 

Lawyers might work in a case management system, researchers in an electronic lab Notebook, developers in Jira and call centers in a customer service platform like Zendesk.

Yet when people write about "collaboration," they make a tacit assumption about what form the collaboration takes. In the SharePoint world it is usually multiple people working on a document, presentation or spreadsheet. In the enterprise social sphere it is closer to conversation, in Yammer or Slack for example. 

But when somebody makes decisions on a workflow request or plans resources for a work schedule, isn’t that collaboration too? 

When evolving our digital workplaces we run the risk of forgetting other forms of collaboration, and focus on just the things that Office 365 does. 

The model below reminds us of the other ways people work together. It’s essential that we factor these other forms of collaboration into our designs if our digital workplaces are to remain coherent.

The 4 Collaboration Dimensions

Two dimensions determine collaboration types: stability and complexity. Stable collaboration can usually be defined as a repeatable process, making it suited to workflow-type systems (so long as it isn’t too complex). If it is new or constantly changing, then less structured forms of collaboration are needed. 

Inevitably this gives us a 2 by 2 matrix (forgive me, I’m a consultant and can’t resist).

4 types of collaboration
Four types of collaboration


  1. Ad-hoc interaction: In new situations with low complexity, simple collaboration usually suffices. A phone call, quick meeting or even just a chat over the open-plan partition can do the job. People won't even know that they just used a process. However, this only works when the desired outcome is simple to explain. We’ve all seen this model break down when an email request generates a whole string of “What did you mean exactly?” exchanges.
  2. Embedded process: Well understood outcomes with few options lend themselves to a repetitive process — and make the cost of building it into a workflow system worthwhile. Examples in the digital workplace are HR request forms, facility bookings, rota scheduling and pretty much any kind of checklist. When you get many exceptions though, the complexity goes up. Most workflow tools can’t handle this well. That’s when people resort to email and it gets messy.
  3. Expert process: This is for when the outcomes are well understood and you want a systematic approach, but there's a possibility of exception cases and you require a level of judgement. Examples include surveying, fault diagnosis, insurance underwriting and health and safety assessment. If you take the insurance example, 80 percent of applications might fit the embedded process category and can be fulfilled by junior staff or even automated. Twenty percent will be unusual and need review, for example because there is a medical history or an unusual sport involved. Although the problem is complex, using tools that are too unstructured will lead to errors and a lack of auditability.
  4. Rich collaboration: Sometimes the situation is both complex and novel. Imagine a diagnosis where the symptoms are contradictory, or a set of customer requirements for which no service currently exists. Solving it may require some creative thinking, deep diagnosis, trial and error and even debate over what the requirements might be. Horst Rittel coined the term wicked problems for the most extreme of these. Using too restrictive tools will lead to frustration because the bandwidth of communication is too narrow.

Matching Collaboration Tools to the Job

Once you have a grip on the nature of the collaboration involved, it becomes easier to work out the right tool for the job. 

For example, document-based collaboration can work well for an Expert Process so long as the documents are adapted to the particular need. A safety specialist may have several spreadsheets with built-in macros that calculate risk, for example. This is good, but for a digital workplace to do this at scale requires version control to ensure everyone uses the same macros.


What collaboration tool to use, when
What collaboration tool to use, when



Conversely, Ad-hoc Interaction will feel suppressed if conversations are forced into a workflow system. You can see this in call centers where operators fill in a form, but then use post-its or desk-side conversations to explain everything that didn't fit in the form. Simple task-coordination tools like Trello or Office 365 planner can be enough to ensure things don’t get lost. And if the collaboration becomes systematic, then the task cards can become checklist templates.

Interestingly, checklists can help in several of the quadrants. In his excellent book "The Checklist Manifesto," Atul Gawande talks about pilots using checklists for both routine and emergency situations, such as engine failure. The checklist frees one expert up to focus on the essentials (flying the plane is often recommended) while the other pilot can systematically try to resolve the issue under pressure.

Gawande observed that not every workplace is sympathetic to checklists, with some seeing them as too simplistic. I’ve written before about how collaboration culture matters when it comes to choosing tools, but sometimes specialists collaborate in ways that necessitate different tools than everyone else. 

This can get tricky, because using a different tool will create silos. However, it's preferable to using an inadequate tool for the job. The solution lies not in forcing them into a standard, but in channelling the outcome of their work back into the tool everyone else uses.

Further Reading:

About the Author

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 15 years, working with companies such as AstraZeneca, AkzoNobel, Standard Life and BUPA. His current activities focus on intranet and digital workplace strategy, the business side of SharePoint, and the use of social tools for collaboration and internal communication.


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