The Centrality of Communication for Soft Skills

In my previous blogs I’ve described the five competencies at the heart of “soft” skills, which emerged from four years of research and development from my team at the Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking into the talent requirements of contemporary businesses.

The five competencies are Adaptability, Cultural Competence, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity, and 360 Degree Thinking.

A recent major study by LinkedIn covered some of the same ground, and their findings pretty much confirmed our own. I want to extend the LinkedIn study and link it (pun intended) back to the things we study here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism –particularly strategic communication – and show that at their heart “soft” skills are communication skills.

Their results show clearly that when corporate recruiters and hiring managers use the term “soft” skills – they are referring to communications skills.

LinkedIn’s study of 291 hiring managers in the U.S. found that 59% say the number one in-demand “soft” skill is communication. Another persuasive study of 1,300 corporate recruiters by Businessweek got the same result: communications is the most important. Of the 11 sectors of the American economy represented in their sample, including IT, chemicals, commercial banking and the like, communications skills were number one, and they were second in demand for two other sectors.

In sum, all five Third Space attributes, and the majority of the top ten soft skill attributes that LinkedIn and Businessweek uncovered, are driven by the capacity to communicate. At their core the most important “soft” skills are communication skills.

It makes sense that communication skills are in such high demand. After all, we are living in a postindustrial, digitally-driven society, where communication competencies are essential. Here at Annenberg we developed a concept we call “communication at the center”, because communication-related activities have now moved from the periphery of life to the center, for individuals, groups, institutions and countries as a whole. Now the dominant position of communication is radically and rapidly re-shaping the structure of risks and opportunities, and changing the relative influence of different actors. Whereas control over territory and natural resources like oil were once the determinants of power, today it is access to networked communications, used strategically, that convey power.

This is true for those in widely distributed networks (think non-state actors like terrorists), or centralized actors like the government of China or large corporations. They all try to leverage communications under these new circumstances to their own strategic advantage. A classic case at the individual level is the amazing capacity of President Trump to seize advantage from new opportunities and to minimize risks by cleverly using new social media, as well as leveraging the legacy media and their interaction in our modern hyper-connected communication eco-system.

Even though communication competencies are number one, and companies are desperately seeking them, they are grossly undersupplied by the leading professional schools. The traditional training grounds like business schools, engineering schools or the liberal arts are all struggling to meet corporate demands in their own ways. But they are not there yet.

Our conclusion is clear – if, across the board, employers are saying loud and clear that communication competencies are the most important, then organizations seeking them should come to USC Annenberg.

Our students are taught critical soft skills, especially those under the Third Space rubric. 96% of graduates are hired within 12 months of graduating. More and more graduates are hired to work at well-known high tech firms like Google and Apple, as well as with startups and more traditional media and communication companies.

While we are a high-value source of communication skills we are not resting on our laurels. In response to the growing demand for “soft” skills we recognize we must continue to sharpen those skills, through more careful definitions and assessments; by creating new integrated programs to provide multiple communication insights into every facet of the modern world; and to provide our graduates with complementary hard skills like data analytics and visualization, business economics, app design and entrepreneurial experiences. I distinguish this unique mix of Third Space and other skills as “Communication 3.0”. This is not your grandfather’s version of Communication 1.0. It’s a brand new way of thinking.

We are convinced the communications-driven Third Space framework we have designed at the Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking helps leaders in any sector make better choices, pursue more sophisticated strategies, and achieve higher results. For those who want to be successful at the center of the new communication society, they need to combine strategic communication skills and Third Space Thinking and bring them into the center of all they do.

So if you want to master soft skills, you need to master Third Space Thinking as a methodology to more effectively frame and solve problems in today’s complex and ever-changing world.