Thursday, 14 May 2009

Business Challenge

Watching the Apprentice last night (I know, it's all I talk about nowadays*) I decided it was like a business-oriented Scrapheap challenge. When someone actually wants to build a go kart (or a trebuchet, or a speedboat, or any other Scrapheap-type contraption) in the real world, there are lots of steps to go through - materials and suppliers need to be sourced and researched, schematics drawn up and experts consulted. But for the purposes of entertainment, these considerations are put aside, and the competitors are encouraged to build something without the necessary materials and time that will almost certainly not work particularly well. But then that doesn't matter, as there's nothing riding on it, and it's just a bit of fun.

So then, contrast with the Apprentice where there is ostensibly something riding on it (how much, or how little is open to interpretation), and where it is supposedly "business" skills that are being tested. Like scrapheap challenge, then, the tests are done without appropriate materials or time, but there is none of the sense of friendly competition about it (because the Apprentice is real and serious, dontchaknow), and the results of the tests are given huge importance. Imagine if the winning team in scrapheap challenge was offered an engineering position at Ferrari? That wouldn't be fair, of course, because why does building a war machine that happens not to fall apart quite as quickly as your opponents' qualify you for anything (other than perhaps a humorous trophy)?

In the same way, I find the idea of putting together a pitch to rebrand a Kent town in two days flat with no experience, expertise, resources or time to be a pretty strange way of testing business nous. Someone who could well have done the job brilliantly in reality might fail on the task for any number of reasons beyond their control - factors provided by the context of the task and the structure of the program.

Clearly, this is true of any interview (or indeed any situation in which someone's ability is judged), but for a show that is constantly reaffirming that it is testing "business" skills, it relies an awful lot on standard reality-tv task tropes. In scrapheap challenge, the teams spend 5 minutes choosing what to build, and then hours building it. Throughout, the smallest problem can scupper a team's (possibly badly laid) plans. Rather than being a test of engineering skill (in as much as an entertainment program can be any kind of real test, naturally), it is a test of ingenuity and luck - no bad thing in itself, of course. Eventually someone comes out on top, because their machine, made out of different parts, to a different design happens to do better. It's entertaining, but it's not particularly rigourous. In a real engineering situation, there would be research, feedback, and, if a plan was obviously going wrong, the chance to put back the deadline in favour of quality. Obviously none of this matters, because scrapheap challenge isn't pretending to be a rigorous test, it's a competition, and competitions can rely on luck.

The Apprentice, on the other hand, is supposed to be an interview - a specific test of ability in which the most able person comes out on top, but is structured like a casual competition, where luck plays enough of a role to keep things entertaining, with rules that benefit some over others. Anita might be a brilliant businesswoman, but we'll never know, because she got a fraction of the time available to the other interviewees to show what she could do. You might be able to learn something about someone by putting them in a high pressure situation in which they might easily do everything right and still come out on the losing team, but doing it twelve times doesn't necessarily give you the person with the best business mind.

In last night's episode, when Sir Alan asked what the cause of the failure was, a response of "we were given no time at all to do a job we're not experts at, without the possibility of research or feedback, we had to go with the first idea we came up with, and with a small pre-set team, we lacked the specific skills required for portions of this task" would not necessarily have been out of place. Essentially, with so much restricted by the framework of the competition, there's no way of telling success-by-skill from success-by-circumstance.

My real problem with the Apprentice, of course, is not that it has this structure, since it is welcome to have any structure it likes, but that I feel it is making claims to rigour and accuracy that it cannot possibly deliver on given the constraints present in the program. And so no matter how entertaining I find the buying and selling and marketing-speak, I can't ever quite get past the idea that they may as well be building giant crossbows out of car parts.

* it's pretty much 100% of the broadcast TV I watch these days, and hence, I like to believe, this kind of indulgent blog-focus is allowable.

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