What purpose does the BBC programme ‘The Apprentice’ serve?

Yesterday, I watched episode four in the latest series of the BBC TV show ‘The Apprentice’.  At the end of it, Alan Sugar fired all three of the poorest performers (Ella Jade Bitton, Sarah Dales & Steven Ugoalah). But not before they lost all professional and personal dignity, squabbling in the board room, with the project manager of the losing team (Ella Jade), pleading repeatedly with Lord Sugar to be given another chance.

A triple elimination in one week, along with post-dismissal pleading was a new low point for the series. Is the underlying quality of the applications really that bad, is the screening process to allow them to participate in the series the problem, or is it just the nature of the task that creates a race for bottom place? On a related note, if the CV’s of the Apprentice wannabes really are as great as they claim, why do so few of them step up to lead an ‘all stars’ team in any given episode?

I know one of the purposes of the series is entertainment and that Lord Sugar donates his sizeable series fee to charity. However, the viewer cannot help but wonder, why are the end results of each task so mediocre, whether creating their own video channels to go on the World’s largest video-sharing site, or simply selling market stall products (with TV cameras rolling that in themselves, attract curious punters)?

For any of the wannabe apprentices, especially in the early episodes of the series, doesn’t it occur to them that their best chance of not appearing in the bottom three for elimination is to put maximum effort into effective teamwork?

Arguably, for Lord Sugar to go into business with the winner, two qualities will stand out – one is very clever business ideas, executed well. And the second is stunning leadership qualities. Perhaps if the ‘prize money’ was quadrupled to £1M, it might attract a superior group of wannabe apprentices and reveal in the tasks, a far more stunning range of ideas, delivery and leadership in action. From Lord Sugar’s perspective, does he want to go into business with someone with amazing potential for a mere £1M investment, or go into business with someone who believes their own hype, for a very expensive investment of £250,000?

Personally, I’d far rather watch a version of The Apprentice, with:

  • less tantrums and loss of human dignity in the boardroom,
  • less smarmy sales pitches to very savvy and seasoned business buyers (even after 3 prior episodes, some project managers still seem to think you can sell complete lemon products, solely by baffling the buyer with youthful sales charm),
  • less editorial emphasis on the backchat between prima-donna contestants during the task,
  • more coverage during the task of heroic teamwork to problem solve,
  • most importantly of all, FAR more design-brainstorming time spent at the front end of the task – none of the wannabes seem to realise that time spent doing that well will pay off massively in the final Boardroom analysis.

As well as delivering far better end results, a change in emphasis might restore some viewers’ beliefs in business activity (and Lord Sugar’s TV series emphasis) as a positive economic force.

Lastly, a real business innovation contrast with the above process. Two Imperial College of London computing graduates Ashley Brown and Simon Overell recently launched an online fraud-busting start up company ( which was then acquired by Google. Granted it was at least a year of intensive effort to create the end result (not two days as for The Apprentice tasks). My question is, would university graduates of the calibre of Mr Brown and Mr Overell have been attracted to join a series like The Apprentice, or is the instant loss of 50% control and the incentive money just too small to be worth bothering about?


Jobs, AI and business models

I just read a really interesting article on the McKinsey’s website ‘Artificial Intelligence meets the C-suite’, where some leading business academics discuss the implications of rapidly advancing artificial intelligence on conventional organisational structures run by senior executives.

Rather than review the article, instead, here are some follow-on points to consider.

  1. In a future World influenced, if not dominated by AI and hyper-competition, will the strategic goal of capturing  ‘sustainable competitive advantage’ instead become ‘maintain competitive advantage’, with advantage mostly gained by using data and cutting-edge analytical techniques?
  2. Will most future companies become more like MI5/MI6 – gathering and analysing data comprising most of the work and then acting in very specific ways, once insight is gained?
  3. With the rise of AI, will a growth job for human managers be to spend increasingly more time making judgements about whether to develop & deploy staff, versus commission AI to create/deliver products & services?
  4. Will next-generation, business process reengineering (BPR) instead become AI BPR?
  5. With the rise of AI, will ‘efficiency in limited-scope environments’ dominate over ‘inefficiency in wide-scope environments’, causing entrepreneurs to move their business models into that space? Some examples:
  • to base their business model on data expertise (and rapidly go where the data takes them), not (staff) domain expertise,
  • to simplify (value chain) negotiations,
  • to simplify the challenge of motivating & leading staff,
  • to simplify the need to gain political consensus,
  • to balance internal data analysis (on costs, internal resources & activities) with external data analysis (on markets).

Organisational dilemmas on centralising and customising

Centralise to internalise (control) and keep confidentiality (need to know). Decentralise to externalise. Decentralising isn’t just empowering people to use judgement. But sharing the organisational values too.

Empowering front line staff risks disempowering service consistency and powers up the complaints department (expectations of customisation rise).

Deciding to service the growing long tail of customer demand by empowering front line staff (not digital automation) is like pouring petrol on a growing blaze.

When thinking about the staff training budget, perhaps the best investment in staff training comes from their interactions with customers. It also provides service, gathers market research on emerging demand and builds customer loyalty.

Leadership and Politics – what’s the difference?

Leadership engages common interests to pursue uncommon objectives. Arguably, leadership is fundamentally about sustainable design. And it uses clever strategy to achieve sustainable design.

In contrast, politics are about short-term decision making and the tactics linked with short-term thinking. Such tactics might include:

  • borrowing from the future to pay for the present,
  • misleading voters about risk & the root causes of various problems concerning the voters,
  • governing in favour of the lobby group who offer the greatest short term benefits to the political party in power.

Tragically in my view, we have excessive politics and not enough leadership amongst the global institutions and multi-national companies operating and influencing World events. Instead, in my view, we need the best minds in the World, whether in multi-nationals, governments, retired, or in start ups, providing leadership to design win-win solutions that benefit the environment and multiple countries, if not entire continents. This would leave politicians to administer the follow-on details, including how benefits are divided up between groups and across generations, in the spirit of sustainable design.

Political Stability amongst Nations

If nations such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel & North Korea want greater political stability, it’s likely to come from improved international trade. That’s because trade expands the areas of common interest internationally. Perhaps there are more common interests than various countries realise and more leadership is needed to debate these common interests?

Surely the Arab and Balkan states and various religious groups can see the stalemate suffering that endures in the Middle East (Israel-Palestine) if they continue to duplicate that type of close-neighbour conflict. Surely they can see how much there is to gain from co operation on sustainable design instead?

The Israel-Palestine Conflict

My guess is that for Israel & Palestine, the only real future peace for both will come from sustainable design of a common solution (two recognised states), yet both have entrenched politics and minimal leadership to (yet) achieve it. Probably that design will have to come externally, (at the UN level), because of the high level of legacy bitterness and suffering making constructive debate almost impossible. Such a common solution might involve Israel donating some land that adjoins the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian state, along with joint ventures to alleviate overcrowding in the Gaza Strip. Israel could act to then improve crop farming on the donated land to help feed the population of the Gaza Strip. In return, Palestinians would formally recognise the state of Israel and cease armed activity against it, or risk Israeli ground troops imposing recurrent occupancy (checkpoints & house searches) on their territory.

The Failed State Problem

The failed states are those without any political voice internationally, because they no longer function as a nation. In some ways their governance is like the issues of common law of the oceans, the colonisation of Space, the governance of Antartica and international rules governing multi national company conduct.

Perhaps the leadership solution emerging for the failed states will simply be greater UN governance of these areas, with eventual return to humanitarian self-governance. Why? Every time warring factions within these areas commit atrocities that drive the innocent civilians to emigrate, the flood of refugees become an international problem. Similarly, every time international terrorist groups enter such areas to use them as training grounds (with or without local consent), the results also become an international problem.

At least with UN intervention governance, the humanitarian governance problem can be contained geographically and innocent peoples’ lives protected, so they can survive to ultimately pursue humanitian self-governance. The issue delaying UN governance is under what circumstances should the UN step in to over-ride self determination and how forceful should it become when resistance is encountered?  This is probably a set of criteria to be developed by clever minds and agreed by all UN member countries.

Food for thought?

Closed Loop Thinking – the opposite of closed thinking

How many community and business problems get bigger, because we grow the ‘open loop’ rather than growing the ‘closed loop’?

Open loops involve inputs at one end, some kind of non-linear travel and some outputs at the other end. As the human population grows, as economic activity grows, as the monetary value grows, more goes in, but correspondingly more comes out of the open loop. Think of a plumbing system with water flowing through it. Think of house supply shortages and rising house prices, creating barriers to people getting onto the property ladder (the result).

With closed loops, as there is growth in population, economic activity and/or monetary value, the loop itself has enough flexibility to get fatter and it enlarges proportionately. Think of global trade, the human vascular system (veins & arteries), healthy lifestyles, housebuilds linked to household growth. Or the double-entry book-keeping system itself.

Open loops are about waste and shortage.

Open loops are about freedoms (with some adverse and sometimes unexpected consequences).

Open loops are about functional department battles (to obscure the blame for waste).

Open loops are about poor strategy, executed to excess.

Open loops allow you to only measure flow, not total volume.

Open loops are about one-time trading (exploitation), with little trust.

Open loops tend towards disorder & obsolescence over the long term.

Open loops discourage significant innovation & teamwork.


Closed loops are about proportionate recycling for net growth.

Closed loops are about responsibilities (what goes around comes around).

Closed loops are about joined-up leadership & waste avoidance.

Closed loops are about great strategy, executed to excess.

Closed loops allow you to measure total volume and flow. As ‘volume’ builds, its capital value also builds e.g. social network or phone network size, club membership influence, no of bank accounts held, customer information. The opportunity – create enclosed volume to create collateral than can be financially borrowed against.

Closed loops are about repeat trading (sustainability), with embedded trust.

Closed loops build order & sophistication over the long term.

Closed loops are about significant innovation & require teamwork.


How can you make an open loop more efficient?

  • Increase the rate per period (a possible trade-off is more efficiency sooner, but faster wear and tear on the supporting infrastructure, causing more maintenance cost).
  • Increase consistency within the flow (create fewer gaps and more even flow, including using queuing or booking systems, or variable pricing, to manage time of day demand levels).
  • Reduce the friction between flow and its infrastructure (manage people’s expectations about freedom to act within boundaries and make appeals time-limited).

How can you make a closed loop more efficient?

  • Increase its flexibility to expand and contract cost-effectively, as demand dictates.
  • Leverage the infrastructure investment. If employ blended learning in higher education, can increase the flow, with proportionately less investment to scale up the infrastructure investment.


Are open and closed loops the same thing as vicious and virtuous cycles?

An open loop isn’t a cycle, but instead is a one way flow. A closed loop is a virtuous cycle.

Are open and closed loops the same thing as self-balancing and self-reinforcing cycles?

Self-balancing cycles typically involve trade-offs, for example in politics. Stability is achieved when there is common agreement and recognition of the value of the trade-offs made. Arguably closed and open loops can be both self-balancing and self-reinforcing. The problem with an open loop being self-reinforcing is that the downstream problems (pollution etc) prevent its sustainability.


The opportunity

If government policy-makers take more of a closed-loop approach, rather than an open-loop approach, policy regulation might design out tax avoidance, pollution, redundancy, unemployment, crime and economic migration.

If corporate owners take more of a closed-loop approach, rather than an open-loop approach, corporate policies and procedures might design out process inefficiency, process rework, redundancy, legal and after-sales support costs.


The means

So how can you turn an open-loop approach into a closed-loop approach?

(1) One way is to join together two open loops to create the closed loop.

At a university, in the Facilities Management department, use heat transfer from research equipment experiments to generate power (geothermal energy generation) or heat office buildings.

Use faculty discoveries that are approved for commercial use (new materials and energy management systems especially) to reduce the university’s estate operating costs.

In a corporate setting, people are hired, work and then retire or leave the organisation. Unemployed and retired people then provide volunteer labour to advise organisations how to run better. Can these two open loops be joined into one closed loop? If the organisation creates a new status for those retiring or leaving it as employees, those ex-employees could then plough back on a voluntary basis, ideas and advice that the same organisation then benefits from, to grow and hire more staff. Similarly, when the Justice system succeeds in rehabilitating law-breakers, not only is future social cost avoided, but their productive contribution helps build the economy and national culture to greater heights.

(2) Another way is substitution – replace open with closed. This happened historically when the World adopted the double entry book-keeping approach to business records.

In a university setting, embrace a student self-service model, reinforced at all points of the student lifecycle, from preregistration, enrolment, self-directed course content enquiry, study group communication, campus services, course assessment, student survey, student finance, aspects of graduation, professional registration, alumni communication and life-long learning

In an automotive design example, effect refinements to engine efficiency aim to turn exhaust gases into usable system inputs and replace the heat (generated by friction) and moving parts wear with frictionless or solid state components.

In a government policy setting, modify the tax system to build public reserves that are ear-marked to maintain and develop public infrastructure, regardless of economic cycles. Build the fund in the good times and spend correspondingly more in the downturns.

Food for thought?

Competing on Time in Higher Education

In the world of manufacturing, manufacturing cycle efficiency (MCE) = processing time/throughput time. This ratio is less than or at best equal to 1. This is because:

Throughput time = Processing time + Inspection time + Movement time + Waiting & Storage time.

From the customer perspective, processing time has value while the other 3 components are non value-adding. From the organisation’s perspective, it wants to reduce throughput time in its entirety and especially in the customer-perceived ‘non value adding’ aspects.

In a Higher Education (HE) context, what are some examples of ‘Processing time’? Teaching and Research activities.

What are examples of ‘Inspection time’? Research time spend screening, comparing and filtering the results.

What are examples of ‘Movement time’? Shipping physical samples between research subcontractors and College research teams, or between collaborating institutions or departments within the College.

What are examples of ‘Waiting & Storage time’? This is the time lapsed between periods of research or teaching activity, not already covered as inspection time or movement time. For the College, if it wants to improve College process efficiency (CPE), Waiting & Storage time likely offers the biggest opportunity for improvement (cost reduction without loss of quality).

Why is improving CPE desirable?

  • It will help the College reach its surplus targets on a sustainable basis,
  • It will help the College differentiate itself against competitor institutions,
  • It may increase the research grants won to grant applications submitted ratio[1],
  • It may lead to raising the standard of academic entry to the College’s taught programmes,
  • And most importantly, it better meets the needs of both research funders and students.

To elaborate on meeting funder and student needs better, the sooner a student graduates, the quicker they can pay off their student debt and the less debt incurred. Meanwhile, the sooner the research funder gets the research results from the College, the sooner they can commercialise them for economic benefit. And the sooner the College research team can publish their findings.

Financially, if the College became World-class at fast delivery of Research and Teaching through improved CPE, it would:

  • increase the College asset yields,
  • use working capital more productively,
  • generate surpluses faster than at present
  • allow the College to average up its research grant rates (overhead recovery) sooner.

Cost rates ($/period) would increase with increased throughput, but fixed costs would be covered faster. With effective marketing (to optimise price & volume combinations), the College surpluses would accrue faster than the overall costs would rise.

How can a University or College improve its CPE?

The object would be to systematically review every process that impacts the overall throughput time in research and teaching, to realise a goal of shortening the cycle of both by say 25%.

Teaching time (processing time) can be shortened in various ways without compromising quality. For example writing high quality/interactive teaching content & distributing it online to students, with follow up in-class sessions on workshops, case studies and role playing (the in class hours would in total be only 75% of current in class time and done in a condensed period).

Research time (processing time) could be sped up by investing in the latest generating, screening & filtering research technologies, with success defined upfront and relentless testing until a breakthrough is achieved.

Inspection time could be automated and merged into processing time in the case of research activity.

Movement time probably isn’t significant but there may be ways to shorten and reduce the movements of research samples and research information between various parties.

Shortening waiting & storage time for research work might include a variety of tactics. For example using animal & microbial species with fast multiplication rates (short breeding cycles), using more powerful testing simulation programmes, writing software code more efficiently, and/or doing research in more agile ways. In teaching, shortening waiting time could come with online content distribution, writing assessment templates concurrently with teaching content updates, providing fast turnaround on test and examination results and reducing the delays in the course between content assimilation, testing & graduation. The content itself could be better customised for different learning styles.     

What barriers to change might arise within the College, to the concept of competing on time?

  • Senior management may already be committed to undertaking process reviews explicitly to improve quality, but not explicitly aimed at reducing cycle time in operational processes.
  • There may be academic resistance to conducting Research & Teaching activities any faster than at present, citing risks to the quality perception of the College brand, objecting to the reasons why cycle time improvements are needed at all (universities aren’t about generating contributions greater than zero, universiites aren’t in a competition with other universities etc), or voicing other concerns.
  • The short term monetary investment required, may be a disincentive to initiating such changes.
  • A consensus view might emerge that the benefits are not certain enough to justify the change.


[1]  Funders, given a choice between research applications from equally well-respected research teams (from different Higher Education Institutions) will likely choose based on who can credibly deliver the required results in the shortest time. Funders probably won’t insist that the College improves its cycle time. Instead they will reward those leading HE’s that do reduce cycle time, with research grants.



Friendship and the process

One way to look at friendship is as a goal, complete with milestones to reach the goal.

How to identify and reach various milestones can be made a bit easier by identifying tasks and their sequence. Tasks build up into process steps (both can have milestones). As the processes becoming completed, the goal can be reached (stronger friendships, more enduring friendships and/or a greater number of friendships say).

The suggested set of inputs are; you, your personality, social catalysts, event hosts, event & transaction fees, the set of friendship prospects, actual new friends, actual existing friends, the event frequency and duration, event quotes (suggested get togethers), event bookings (agreements), scheduled events (confirmed meetings), the other person’s goodwill gestures, your need from the other person, the value of the relationship payoff to you, the cost to build the relationship to you, your ask of the other person, their negotiation, your reciprocal support level to them, the state of your ‘goodwill bank’ and the number of ‘bad debts’ (unsuccessful examples from the above efforts).

How do such inputs translate into processes? Broadly, there are some preliminary processes (the starting things such as ‘you’ through to the ‘event & transaction fees’ in the list above), some ‘prospect and friend’ processes (the list from ‘prospects’ to ‘actual existing friends’ above), some ‘event arranging’ processes (‘event frequency’ to ‘scheduled events’ in the above list), the event itself, and some post-event processes (‘goodwill gestures’ onwards in the list above). Within each process are various process steps. These can be broken down also into tasks.

To reach the goal faster, suggest managing the tasks and processes more effectively. An example in the preliminary set of processes, is in first understanding more about ‘you’ (ask others for feedback), to increase your likelihood of friendship success.

Sometimes, as for companies, it’s better to invest your time and energy in developing existing customers (friendships) than neglecting them in favour of ‘greener pastures’, which may not endure and are of unproven value in any case.

You also want as few ‘refunds’ (e.g. your input being completely under-valued by the other person, resulting in a level of excessive investment by you with no payoff) and ‘rework’ (e.g. a mis-communication resulting in the other person becoming offended, or one party having to rebuild the trust in the relationship) as possible, to be generated along the way, since both will slow the process down.

Good luck.