Lord Sugar's Internet Restrictions Are a Big Problem for The Apprentice

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

Dance of the Knights, aerial shots of various London skyscrapers and a classic Lord Sugar putdown, followed by that dramatic “Lord Sugar is on the lookout for a brand new business partner...” voiceover. Whether you love or hate The Apprentice (UK version, obviously), you’ve probably tuned in to it at some point during its 11-year history.

However, you might not be so familiar with the inner workings of the show. The famous boardroom, for instance, isn’t a boardroom at all, but a studio. Two endings are filmed at the conclusion of each season, with Lord Sugar only revealing the identity of the winner to the show’s production team -- and the finalists themselves -- the day before transmission. You’ll find an additional bunch of (arguably) interesting details here.

After recently catching up on the Discount Buying episode, it struck me that while the candidates are allowed to use their phones, their web usage appeared to heavily restricted.

This was most obviously demonstrated by a scene filmed in the Shard in SE1, during which series 12 pretty boy Courtney Wood clearly thought that a jaunt to SE2 would take a matter of minutes. “SE2?” he said, thoughts of Black African Soap clogging up his mind. “That’s London Bridge, that’s this area here. So we should be able to go there straight away.” Citymapper would have put him straight.

Similarly, the earlier Cycling Crowdfunding episode saw the usually refreshingly smart Trishna Thakrar advise the rest of her team that ‘gilet’ shout be spelt ‘gillet’. Without a physical dictionary to hand, and desperately short of Google’s wisdom and any sort of common sense, they listened and proceeded to repeatedly misspell the name of the product they were trying to crowdfund for.

In another incident, sad sack Alana Spencer asked if Morocco was in Turkey, prompting Courtney to first look baffled and then decide that yes, Morocco is in Turkey. If only they could use Google.

I'm sure there are many similar examples out there, but I can't recall them as I'm not always paying attention when I watch the show.

I did, however, get in touch with production company Boundless to find out more. Could tech whizz Lord Sugar really be cutting digital skills out of the entire process? This was the response I received from a spokesperson:

Candidates do not have access to the internet on their mobile devices unless it is required by the task (for example, if they are launching a website).

The tasks set by Lord Sugar are there to challenge the candidates to exhibit the skills needed to set up and run a business. By limiting access to the internet, Lord Sugar is able to clearly assess candidates’ own intelligence and practical skills. These skills are important as he is looking for someone who can not only come up with a fantastic business proposal, but have the ability to run the business they’ve put forward.

With no experience of running a company myself, but assuming that internet connectivity is fairly important in the world of modern business, I had a chat with Joao Baptista, associate professor of information systems at Warwick Business School, former director of New Technologies for the Conservative party and father of a 15-year-old who happens to be obsessed with The Apprentice.

Asking him if the show’s strict approach to web access is still valid in this day and age, he replies, “I think not. I think it’s a view of technology as a way of shortcutting, cheating. Any organisation today is a digital organisation.

“It misrepresents what we would expect from a manager and the way the world works today. I don’t know if it’s the perception that technology makes it easier. I totally disagree with that. If anything, it’s the opposite. Technology adds complexity.

“The first thing people do is look up competitors on the web and capitalise on the amount of information available. Big data and the ability to filter through a tsunami of information is a key skill. If Lord Sugar's not seeing that in the candidates, it’s an area in which he has no view on which one has an understanding of new digital business models and how to operate in this much more connected digital environment.”

A pretty emphatic answer. That said, The Apprentice is above all else entertainment -- an easy to watch, challenge-based TV show with a great big prize at the end of it. Even so, Baptista thinks it’s due an update.

“I guess it probably makes a better programme because those shortcuts might cut out bits [like the ones mentioned above] where there’s some embarrassment for not knowing something. Those nuggets might add something. If they’re all looking up where to go on Google Maps all the time, it might not necessarily make interesting television.

“Was this programme filmed 10 years ago, before the iPhone? They’ve always done the show in the same way, so it’s a very closed format. The program was made before these services were so ubiquitous and embedded in our lives, and now it just feels like it isn’t current. It does limit the currency of the programme.”

If The Apprentice was to embrace the internet and technology, I wouldn’t envy the person tasked with making that happen. As Mental Floss notes, the candidates are almost completely cut off from the outside world during the process. They have to give up their own devices, as well as TV, newspaper and web access, they’re only allowed one 10-minute phone call home each week and can only leave the house under supervision.

This is, of course, all done as a way to create a controlled environment and to prevent the candidates from communicating with outsiders, who could potentially disrupt the show. Baptista explains that he’d continue to restrict internet access on some tasks, such as those based around selling, but lift the ban on others. Perhaps the candidates could be challenged with tapping into networks to sell through them, he says.

“The sharing economy’s a big thing. How would the candidates create a business that is not making assumptions about the way businesses operate today? Not having any tasks and not allowing the candidates to deal with technology is not realistic and the risk is recruiting someone from the past, someone really good at doing things the old ways. Is that what Lord Sugar is really looking for? I doubt it.”