Becoming Diverse And Digital at the Same Time

There are two big barriers to greater diversity in today’s digital economy. One is the absence of hard technical skills among those who are most highly underrepresented.  These are the skills typically associated with the acronym STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. And certainly these skills are in short supply among underrepresented groups.

Less well understood and less recognized is the deficit of ‘soft’ skills among women and people of color.  This deficit is equally serious.  And not just for underrepresented people. According to a Bloomberg report, the single greatest competence that corporate recruiters are seeking among all their new employees is communication, by far the most fundamental soft skill. It was reported to be more in demand than hard skills, like those associated with engineering, for example. Five years of research by my team at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism confirms these findings.

Our work identified five core competencies that employers were seeking in their companies: Adaptability, Cultural Competence, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity and 360-Degree thinking. These skills, which McKinsey terms ‘interactive’ skills because they enable those who possess them to engage more effectively with others, are important across a career, but become especially critical as one climbs the career ladder. One way to say this – the higher one scores on soft skill measures, the higher one is likely to go on a career trajectory

Hard skills are acquired mostly in formal settings – in secondary and post-secondary education. Soft skills are acquired both in formal educational settings, but also beyond – in the home and in the community.  These skills are a form of ‘social capital’, which over the long term can be as valuable as financial capital. If a potential employee grows up in a home where all five skills are not available, or poorly conveyed, they will not perform as well in the job market, including in digital firms. Less likely to be hired, and if hired, less likely to be promoted.

While data on soft skill availability among women and people of color are less accessible than information on hard skills, my own experience over the past decade as dean of a large, competitive communication school, and 20 years of work leading inclusion initiatives in international affairs, national security and inside the entertainment industry, tells me that being competent in interactive thinking is directly related to one’s socio-economic and cultural background. A family’s capacity to send their kids to Europe for the summer, or to museums and summer school for cultural enrichment, affects the children’s levels of inter-cultural competence, intellectual curiosity and adaptability.

Most people are familiar with where and how they can enhance their STEM competencies – get a degree, or take courses, at an engineering school or in a math program. Where can people go to acquire these five soft skill attributes, which we call ‘ACE-IT’ skills? This is a challenge for everyone, but given the underrepresentation problems in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, for example, it is especially problematic for those who are traditionally excluded and possess less social capital than their more privileged counterparts.

These interactive attributes, admittedly, are harder to teach and measure, but we have discovered it is possible. A good start would be a school that, according to the international ranking service QS, is reported to be the best communication school in the world, and consciously teaches ACE-IT skills to undergraduates, graduate students and working professionals in the U.S. and globally. A good start would be a school that combines teaching interactive ACE-IT skills with one of the most robust and well-regarded centers analyzing diversity and exclusion in global media. A good start would be the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

In October, the newly created Center for Third Space Thinking ( will offer a two-day leadership development program to enhance ACE-IT skills, and digital diversity will be one of the principal topics addressed.  It is targeted to people who have been identified as ambitious and capable of leadership in an organizational setting. IBM, Herbalife, Western Union, AECOM, the Nixon Foundation and others are already sending their employees.

This leads to a final important observation. The responsibility – and opportunity – for enhancing digital diversity does not rest only with actual and potential employees. The lion’s share of the adjustment to today’s diverse and digital environment must be done by companies. Such innovation and alignment of hard and soft skills means having a corporate culture with norms of inclusion and empowerment, and the organizational incentives to back them up.

To refer once again to a McKinsey study, they found that companies believe the most important challenge they face to achieving a productive digital culture is not more data or more IT infrastructure, but soft skill variables – cultural and behavioral barriers.  While a small group of around 15% each pointed to more data or stronger IT, 33% said cultural and behavioral were the biggest barriers.

Enhancing ‘cultural competence’, along with the other interactive skills, are essential. For us, that means the capacity to think, act and move across multiple barriers, whether cultural, organizational or technical. Companies, employees, and indeed the United States as a whole, can’t afford to wait. Soft skills are essential now to achieve digital diversity. And if McKinsey, LinkedIn and Bloomberg all point to the imperative of soft skills for business success, it’s probably time to make them a priority now.