Soapbox

August 25, 2013 11:39 pm

The ivory tower cannot compete with the cathode ray

Light entertainment which focuses on would-be entrepreneurs is creating false expectations

The latest series of the UK television series The Apprentice followed the established pattern of its predecessors, relying on clever editing to make a succession of would-be entrepreneurs appear largely irrational, argumentative and sometimes idiotic. For good measure, the inclusion of numerous conspicuously photogenic contestants has seen accusations of “sexing up” added to the traditional claims of “dumbing down”.

One of the dangers of this approach to “entre-tainment” is that it creates false expectations. By providing a narrow window on what it means to be successful in business – contestants either win or lose, with no middle ground – and showcasing such a skewed and partial set of skills, such television programmes may be setting up the real next generation of entrepreneurs for a fall.

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This is no idle suggestion. There is a danger that students – the very people on whom most hopes for the UK’s future prosperity rest – will believe that the trials and tribulations paraded on these shows can teach them something about how to communicate ideas, evaluate risk and negotiate deals. These programmes are moulding how our highly educated young view the world of entrepreneurship.

We should be concerned about that. Moreover, we should recognise that if there really is some pedagogic value in this sort of “entre-tainment” then it is business schools, not students, that might just learn something truly useful.

Perhaps the first issue we ought to consider is why these shows are so popular and so compelling. The answer is simple enough: their principal purpose is to entertain. They are innately accessible. They appeal to the layperson and the novice. They demonstrate the power of reaching out to the masses and making them believe that they, too, can become entrepreneurs.

Compare this with business schools’ output, much of which is couched in management-speak and beyond the immediate comprehension of a broader audience. The Apprentice might be criticised for “dumbing down” what it means to be an entrepreneur, but many business schools are so afraid of facing a similar charge that they sometimes flee too far in the other direction and render much of what they produce for wider consumption needlessly impenetrable.

The inescapable fact is that the ivory tower is no match for the cathode ray. We cannot criticise the deleterious influence of television without giving due thought to how we can correct the misguided perceptions it engenders. We cannot protest without proposing a convincing alternative.

There are a number of options. One is to pay greater attention to developments such as Moocs (Massive open online courses), the best of which encourage interaction on a large scale and have been hailed as a significant step towards “Ivy League for the masses”. Moreover Moocs represent precisely the kind of innovative and future-proof thinking we should be inculcating in our students.

Another possibility is to work with broadcasters and programme-makers to help ensure entrepreneurship is portrayed more accurately. This notion first emerged in The Promotion of Entrepreneurship in the Audiovisual Media, a report published for the European Commission’s Enterprise and Industry directorate-general in 2007, which said: “For the use of audio-visual media to be effective in promoting entrepreneurship through university education there would be a need for collaboration between TV producers and those responsible for university education”.

This makes perfect sense. After all, nobody is better placed than business schools to stress that entrepreneur-focused programmes advance a profoundly aspirational form of entrepreneurship that is in the main at odds with reality. Nobody is better qualified to caution that these shows encourage individuals to embark on entrepreneurship with a heightened sense of optimism and their own ability, which in the longer term could have a negative effect. By conducting high-quality research we can illustrate that entrepreneurs actually succeed to varying degrees and that failure is often the result of a number of factors, which may or may not include personal ability.

If we insist on expressing the above in abstruse and arcane terms, however, then the effort may well be wasted. Making things unnecessarily challenging only restricts our audience and our impact.

Brian Cox, the particle physicist and television presenter, recently urged the BBC to do more to educate viewers. Conversely, maybe business schools need to do more to entertain – or at least more to engage. The nature of knowledge delivery is changing and business schools that fail to acknowledge this, irrespective of how much they complain, will be left behind.

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Dr Janine Swail is a lecturer in innovation and entrepreneurship at Nottingham University Business School and co-author, with Simon Down and Teemu Kautonen, of ‘Examining the Effect of ‘Entre-tainment’ as a Cultural Influence on Entrepreneurial Intentions’.

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