The Reinvention of Apprenticeship: Alan Sugar’s Variation

April 25, 2008

Apprenticeship has ancient origins, and has reinvented itself as time goes by. Alan Sugar’s celebrity version for the BBC is a recent modification. Its viability as a leadership development approach is examined

I have expressed reservations about The Apprentice in earlier posts. It seems unlikely that many more series will be commissioned.
Nevertheless, it has had enough social impact to warrant some critical attention not as entertainment, but as a possible template for leadership development.

I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of apprenticeship, and compare its dynamics with other approaches for identifying and developing potential leaders.

A short history of the apprenticeship model

Historical studies sometimes only hint at the justified reputation that apprenticeship was often exploitative and one of the targets of social revolutionaries.

Since time immemorial, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans teach their crafts to youth. The records of Egypt, Greece, and Rome from earliest times reveal that skills were still being passed on in this fashion. When youth in olden days achieved the status of craft workers, they became important members of society. Their prestige in England [sic] centuries ago is reflected in a dialog from the Red Book of Hergest, a 14th-century Welsh [sic] Bardic manuscript:

“Open the door! “I will not open it. “Wherefore not? “The knife is in the meat, and the drink is in the horn, and there is revelry in Arthur’s Hall; and none may enter therein but the son of a King of a privileged country, or a craftsman bringing his craft.”

An excellent historical review from the 1920s traces the origins in England to the 11th –century. It cites Ricart’s Kalendar (I like that) from the 14th century thus:

It is said that any man having an apprentice may sell or devise his said apprentice in the same manner as his chattel

The article further notes that

Subsequent legal cases tested the principle which eventually became accepted as the right more precisely to dispose of the office or apprenticeship not the apprentice as a chattel.

Phew. That’s a relief.

Sitting with Nellie

Wasn’t that a bit like the 20th century approach fondly remembered as Sitting with Nellie?

Turns out the origins of the term still defeat blog surfers. I remember it in the context of apprentice training in Northern engineering and textiles organizations. Steve Holden reports that the widely-used phrase can also be found in the USA, where he links the term to the apprenticeship model, but also suggests its value for 21st Century work requirements the open-source world.

Another insightful summary comes from the Institute of Physics

Organisational knowledge creation takes place when knowledge acquisition is managed to form a continuous cycle. This happens particularly effectively in self-organised teams, where members share tacit knowledge and talking brings it to the surface. They exchange thoughts and experiment with new methods and ideas; they initiate problem-solving routines and manage and repair the social context within which they work. Concepts are refined and redefined and then shared with other staff, developing and emerging in more concrete, explicit form through an iterative process of trial and error.
Knowledge can then be transmitted by a process of internalising, of learning-by-doing so that tacit knowledge spreads within the company. The distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge helps to explain why, up to a point, “sitting by Nellie” (now an unfashionable concept) can work where “translating learning to the workplace” from training often does not.

The Apprenticeship Model Revisited

The Apprenticeship model is not without merit. We might agree with the Knowledge Management argument that it is a version of Sitting with Nellie which works ‘where “translating learning to the workplace” from training often does not’.

The self-referential frenzy whipped up by the BBC during The Apprentice run involves increasing number of interviews with ‘losers’ and even panels voting on ‘Was Sir Alan right to fire ….?’ thus keeping the story going from day to day.

These exercises are a bit too voyeuristic for me, and arre anyway open to a more detailed cultural analysis than I have time to make. (Anyone out there interested?).

My impression is of a number of captivated cult-members who make sense of a deeply meaningful experience in terms of a close encounter with a charismatic cult leader.

The robust feedback meted out by the all-powerful Sir Alan is accommodated by his devoted acolytes. If you belief in the virtues of a swift sharp shock as a trigger to learning, the process arguably ‘works’, and a reflective and introspective process of self-learning occurs. It appears to be, at least in the short-term, a developmental experience.

We might reasonably consider if there are longer-term impacts of such experiences on the self-image and social identity of participants. Cary Cooper carried out one of numerous subsequent studies of the impact of such social shock doctrines in his PhD, many years ago. I can’t remember the detailed results, but in general Cooper found, as have workers since, that the impact of developmental leadership programmes on individuals is difficult to assess for longer-term consequences (See Rickards & Clark, 2005).

It’s only a game, isn’t it?

Yes, The Apprentice is obviously entertainment, and hardly intended to offer a leadership role model. However, if the antics of Sir Alan make him the best known among Britain’s business leaders, and if he also is involved in a business development institution, there is at least justification in examining the consequences for public perceptions of business.

Beyond the Apprenticeship Model

But what other models of leadership development offer something aspired to as conversion of tacit knowledge into personal development? Labels abound: Action Learning; Group Relations Training; 360 degree feedback; Communities of learning; Experiential learning; Mentorship; Appreciative Enquiry; The Manchester Method.

What they share is a pedagogically justifiable rationale. Providing individuals with some direct feedback is part of it. (Remember the gentle irony of Bob Newhart’s driving instructor, a wondrous take on the teacher who ducks out of providing honest advice). No one can accuse Sir Alan of failing to give direct feedback.

Sir Alan’s shock-treatment may yet be treated as a wake-up call to those advocating alternative approaches … So let me be direct. Sir Alan, it’s become too tacky, you’ve been captured by the process of becoming a celebrity. I can’t fire you, and there may still be time to get out of the pantomime before someone else does. Walk out of the house. Or am I mixing up my celebrity reality metaphors?


In preparing the post I was reminded of the work of Graeme Salaman.
and studies by his Open University colleague John Story for concerns about unreflective exercise of organizational power