July 2011


We’ve made references to the TV mini-series that shares this book’s author and title before, mainly to make flattering comparisons to The Apprentice. Having now read the book – an accompaniment, rather than a transcript – we can offer some business advice of our own. If we take on board Mr Davis’ argument that resources flow to where they can achieve the most, our recommendation would be that you work that extra hour, earn that extra 43p and buy 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism at Amazon instead. You can then watch Evan’s programmes on iPlayer for nothing – if you’re a UK tax-payer, you’ve already paid for them anyway. And we base our recommendation on Mr Davis’ own advice about openness to new thinking and new practices, and to investing in our own intellectual capital. Made in Britain is entertaining, as you would expect from a man who currently makes his living as a broadcaster, and uses plenty of accessible examples – but doesn’t quite satisfy on a number of levels.

The book sets out to look at the current condition of the British economy, identify strengths (which the author correctly argues are often under-sung) and weaknesses, and to posit possible futures. Writing from the perspective of ASK, it was encouraging to see two of our client organisations – Atkins and Mace – receive recognition for this success in the complexities of a globalised and internationalised world economy. There are many other positive examples in the book too but, although the naiveté of 1960s “I’m Backing Britain” campaign is rightly skewered early in proceedings, the counter-argument seems to boil down effectively to “things aren’t great, but they’re ok and it’ll all be fine in the end because economic theory says it will”. As a minority stakeholder in Davis plc, I finished the book longing for John Humphreys or James Naughtie to pipe up with a pointed question that starts with the word “But”. (And this morning’s GDP figures serve to underline that impression.)

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From an ASK Press Release:

Leading behavioural and organisational change specialist, ASK Europe plc, has formed a strategic partnership with US-based MDA Leadership Consulting to strengthen each company’s existing global reach and leverage each other’s talents and core capabilities.

The partnership will enable ASK and MDA Leadership Consulting to support each others’ existing and new clients across a broad range of projects and geographies, from individual assessment through to people and organisational development.”

You can download a full copy of the press release in PDF format here, or from the ASK Elsewhere page in this blog. Please contact us for further information.

After thirteen weeks, I can take that fork out of my leg and celebrate: we have a winner. Pleasingly, the person most of the office here picked a few weeks back, not least on the grounds that hindsight is better than myopia or having a crystal-clear view of your own adoring reflection. As the four finalists presented their business plans to Lord Sugar’s hired human ‘demolition balls’ (thankfully, with the emphasis on the demolition – His Lordship’s testicular fetishism has rivalled Gordon Ramsay’s in this series), it went mostly as you’d expect.

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Last September, spurred by the coverage it was getting as a text and the impact it was being credited with having on government thinking, I reviewed Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge for this blog. If you don’t have time to read the review again, I was largely unimpressed and unconvinced – an opinion that seemed to swim against the tide. Sitting inside an organisation that takes a behaviouralist rather than educationalist view of personal development, nudging people seemed a bit inadequate.

Behavourial change surely starts with self-knowledge, an assessment of areas where behaviours would benefit from modification, and leads into a period of application where encouragement and support are available to those attempting to change our own behaviours. (Again, we’ve made the point before, but very few of us can change our behaviours without effective support from others. I can see that a ‘nudge’ – non-regulatory hint dropping, setting of default options that smack of ‘social engineering’ but don’t have the courage to say so for political reasons – might point someone in the right direction to start with, but I can’t see how the approach can them keep on the new path.

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Naturally, the theme was something that was ‘Big Business!’ The voiceover almost enunciated the capital letters and exclamation mark for us, just in case we were being a bit slow. (Not for The Apprentice anything niche like vintage guitar trading or rare stamp collecting, where in-depth knowledge, a commercial understanding of the target audience and a sharp eye can make some serious wonga. No sir-ee, time is money. Just not in very big amounts most weeks.) And naturally, we were talking speedy. Not just something banged together from fag-packet to fanfare in 36 hours – although a task around re-thinking what the back of fag-packets could achieve commercially and socially might be a more interesting challenge – but fast-food. The series might drag overall, but taken an episode at a time The Apprentice is fast food telly. It fills a hole, it’s easily digested (if messy and a little hard to swallow), and it’s not as nourishing as it would like us to believe. Brownie points to the task-setter.

So … empty City shopping-mall unit to first branch of a fast food chain in about the same time it takes to prepare for a serious dinner party. On our left, Natasha, Jim and Susan. Natasha fielded her BA in International Hospitality Management, only to see the diners return it to the kitchen. (After it failed to win her PM status, she spent the rest of the programme parlaying it as something she did years ago and chose to never pursue. Which made Lord Sugar a little lumpy.) Selling her expertise in branding instead, Jim – a two-time loser as PM (as Susan nicely pointed out in the Boardroom later on), but a man with a personal grievance about playing second violin – saw no reason why he shouldn’t be PM. (He might even have meant Prime Minister.) They went Mexican, and Jim visited some Mexican food chains for inspiration. His brushes with novelty seemed to begin and end with thinking “Caraca’s” a) had an apostrophe in it, and b) was a Mexican percussion instrument. (It’s the capital of Venezuela, Jim. Google is your friend even if your geography teacher wasn’t.) Given that my local Mexican restaurant plays a relentless diet of Cuban music and serves mostly Spanish or Brazilian food, any hope of cultural understanding was always going to be a long-shot. If they’d pulled that off, I’d have eaten my sombrero. It would have been more nutritious than their nachos, which His Sweetness said reminded him visually of when “my son’s dog puked”. Charmed, I’m sure.

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A few days ago, I was one of a group of 15 or so that were treated to a guided tour of the factory of an internationally renowned UK company that produces(amongst other things) amplifiers for musicians. The group largely compromised people working in IT-based roles, including web design and 3d modelling. Although the company we were visiting undoubtedly scores high on the ‘cool place to visit and get shown around’ scale, it was interesting to watch the group’s reactions on the ‘I was expecting digital everything’ scale – especially as a guitar player. (And even as a guitar player who has loyally used a different brand of amplifier for decades, but never mind …)

Apart from premium range products that are entirely hand-wired (and there are a surprising number of wires – and transistors and diodes and capacitors and so on – in an amplifier), production processes have adapted to the time-saving, productivity enhancing approaches that technological advances have brought about. There’s an undeniable logic: given a pattern to work to (just as a human operator would be), a machine can make considerably more solder joints per minute. Another machine – albeit a large, complicated and expensive one – can assemble a large, complicated circuit board much more quickly too. The time side of the triangle gets drastically shortened, the quality side is unaffected, and decisions to automate can be made on the basis of cost equations (how soon would the investment cover its costs, what are on-going costs of maintenance and upgrades, etc.)

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On the face of it, this was a pretty simple task. Here’s a warehouse full of stuff: pick some, flog it at profit, see what sells, buy more, flog more, building profits and stocks. Yep, got it. It didn’t go well though. A surprising proportion of the brightest young business brains in Britain – well, the contestants, at any road – simplified this further still: flog stuff. As Emperor Sugar had said “this is the re-investment task”, the clue was there at the beginning, but I wondered how many of those bright business brains stop to listen when someone other than them is talking.

One of the initial products on offer were some nodding bulldog toys, replete with Union Flag waistcoats (but minus the car insurance ad, mercifully). This naturally set up a witty off-the-cuff remark from our host aimed at Tom, to the effect that nodding widely wasn’t the whole game and he was now in ‘the thick of it’. Plenty of what was around Tom was fairly thick, to be fair, but I thought what a shame it is that The Apprentice is pre-recorded: a few months on. Otherwise, Tom could have countered by wheeling on Evan Davis – or a clip from Made in Britain – about how we need innovators and product developers as well as traders. The market barrow and the wholesale warehouse didn’t invent themselves, now did they?

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