Back in the 90s, a colleague who’d joined our office from America demanded to know what, exactly, got made in Britain. Nothing got made or done here; that was his basic position. At the time, I thought the best answer was to point to things like aerospace, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Not so many internationally recognised consumer goods, true, but then a sensible person surely has to realise that certain things such as washing machines – whatever the nationality of the brand – tend to get made and sold locally owing to transportation costs. Now if I’d been smart like Newsnight’s Evan Davis, I could have gone a bit further and eulogised stage one of the value chain: activities such as research and design. These things happen in Britain too. Davis has made a whole BBC television series that describes the value chain in the clearest, simplest terms. I wonder if his examples aren’t a bit dated (ARM, Glaxo) but it probably doesn’t matter: I think it’s good to have the idea spelled out.
Compare and contrast with another BBC series that’s supposed to be about business. Yes, that would be The Apprentice. Now you might object that this is really just an entertaining reality show that trades on the self-destructive antics of eager twenty-somethings, but I’d point out that there’s clearly a strong normative component to the show as well. Sir Alan is the voice of the no-nonsense business-minded serious person. His two advisors are practically schoolteachers. They hover over the apprentices and their default attitude is one of disapproval; you can see it in the set of their chins. Now, every few episodes the apprentices get sent to a Soho consultancy for twenty-four hours in order to get something made. Supposedly the apprentices design things during this time period. An iPhone app, say, or a new perfume. Of course, it’s actually the professionals at those consultancies who do the designing; the timescale being ultra-short, they roll out some basic, reheated product. This is as you’d expect: real design is much, much harder; the difficulty of it underpins the possibility of making money at it. The problem with The Apprentice is that there’s next to no recognition of the reality. The Apprentice view of stage one value chain activity is that you do it by marching into the design studio and ‘giving a steer’ to the creatives, who will then work all night. At the end of the all-nighter, the delegator gets to pluck the fruit; the designed product.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sir Alan’s company is not so much about computers these days.