Business needs more than the gift of the gab

About seven million people tuned into the final episode of The Apprentice to see Sir Alan Sugar say ‘you’re hired’ to the winner of the BBC reality show.

The programme has become something of a minor national institution over the past few years, setting out to make business ‘relevant’ to the wider population through the format of TV.

It is certainly entertaining but, despite its success as a piece of prime-time television, one could argue it is missing a trick when it comes to showing the public what make a business successful.

Watching the programme, it would be possible to conclude that a company stands or falls entirely on the merits of its sales and marketing team.

Many of the tasks set by Sugar seem to involve the development of ingenious ways to persuade people to part with money for something they didn’t know they wanted.

In one memorable episode the would-be apprentices performed the equivalent of selling coals to Newcastle by exporting cheese from Britain to France.

Nobody is underestimating the importance of sales, but you will only get so far without a decent product to sell. And designing and building decent products is the business of, you guessed it, engineers.

It is disappointing that although Sugar’s best-known company, Amstrad, is an electronics firm, technology and engineering is more or less invisible in the show.

On the face of it, there are some good reasons for this. An engineering-based challenge for the contestants is unlikely to appeal to the TV producers in the same way as having them spend a day charging around London trying to sell ice cream to children.

It could also be argued that the skills needed for a technology-based project would quite simply be beyond the abilities of the majority of those taking part.

It would be entirely possible, however, to introduce some of the elements of a successful technology project into future series. For example, there is no reason why the basics of good design should not feature, or why the candidates could not be asked to make some intuitive assessments of the merits of competing technologies for a specific application.

With a bit of imagination from the production team, watching the contenders grapple with the unique challenges presented by technical issues could be every bit as entertaining as their escapades on a market stall.

It would also correct any impression among some of the viewing public that business is all about the gift of the gab.

 – To see some examples of innovation in action that would leave even Sir Alan speechless, take a look at the short-list for The Engineer’s Technology & Innovation Awards in the special supplement inside this issue.

Andrew Lee, editor