There’s an Explosion in Demand for Non-Digital

Have Emojis Replaced Emotions?

As the Digital Age Expands Our “Connections,” We’re Losing the Value of Face-to-Face Relationships
What could be more human than conversation, and what better time than now to converse? The desire to connect is a powerful force, technology a mighty conduit.

Last month, when renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking joined Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, he racked up more than 2 million followers in two days. His first post, which appeared in both English and Chinese, read: “In my physical travels, I have only been able to touch the surface of your fascinating history and culture. But now I can communicate with you through social media.”

Yet, as the platforms for communication have multiplied, and with the means to connect now constantly available on our ubiquitous mobile devices, these “connections” can come with a cost: the loss of real-life human interaction. Why meet in person when you can converse on Facebook? Why answer a call when you can send a text? For every Hawking, there are countless hawkers. On social media, marketers of everything from corn chips to cruises invite us to “join the conversation.” But how much actual conversation is taking place?

As a preview for Zocalo’s sixth annual book prize event, “Why We Must Relearn the Art of Conversation,” we asked communications scholars and linguists: How has the emergence of digital technology changed the way we communicate with one another? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

There’s an explosion in demand for non-digital skills.

Ironically, the spread of digital technology has prompted a veritable explosion in the demand for non-digital skills. The world has produced a multitude of MBAs and engineers but an undersupply of executives with the essential communication-related soft skills critical for success in the digital age. Turns out that numbers and algorithms aren’t enough. Those who figure out how to identify, hire, and train people with those rare skills will win the race. Those who don’t will lose.

My team from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism conducted more than three years of detailed research and interviews with C-suite executives. We came away convinced that market leaders know digital technologies have changed the ways we communicate with each other. But they are not sure how to respond. They do know the answers must be unconventional, beyond tech solutions. So while Businessweek has reported that the single most valuable skill that 1,300 corporate recruiters seek in their prospective employees is communication skills, the exact definition of those skills remains too vague and underappreciated. Soft skills are harder to provide than hard skills, and according to McKinsey’s Global Institute, the undersupply of these “interactive” skills is costing four sectors of the American economy between $800 billion and $1 trillion annually.

To close the talent gaps, we have worked diligently to spell out those skills and find ways to nurture them among college, high school, and graduate students, as well as mid-career and senior executives. We are working with a wide range of partners to provide what we call “Third Space Thinking.” These are not the two “hard” skills of engineers or conventional business managers, but the core communication skills of listening, understanding cultural contexts, empathy, adaptability, intellectual curiosity, and 360-degree thinking. Taken together, these essential talents constitute a new way of thinking about the world that complements conventional thinking. Having employees with superior hard skills is an advantage. Having employees with both superior hard skills and amazing soft skills is a super-advantage.