Are engineering and management schools adequately preparing students for our fast-changing, highly complex business world? Not quite, say a number of recent studies. A good education should include soft as well as hard competencies. Universities generally do a pretty good job when it comes to teaching hard skills, - engineering methods, technology, analytical tools, finance, marketing, and so on. But they don’t do so well with the softer competencies, including communications, teamwork and systemic thinking.
For example, a 2007 study on MBA education found significant gaps between the competencies companies are looking for, and what students are taught in business schools. Companies generally want MBA graduates with good social skills who are good at leadership, communications, and innovation. However, the students frequently complain that such skills will not get them the kinds of jobs they want, and they pressure the schools to offer them courses that are more functional, analytical and technical. This particular study focused primarily on MBA programs, but similar skill gaps are likely to be found in engineering and other STEM programs.
Three years ago, USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism embarked on the Third Space, a research project to better understand the nature of the so-called soft competencies companies are looking for, as well as the talent requirements not being adequately addressed by engineering and business schools. The project’s initial findings were recently described in a working paper, The one-trillion dollar global talent gap: What it is and what we can do about it, by Ernest Wilson, Dean of the Annenberg School.
In its first phase, the study conducted face-to-face, in-depth conversations with 75 senior executives across companies in a broad range of industries, including automobile, banking consulting, consumer products and technology. Online surveys were used to gather additional data. A number of academic institutions were consulted as well.
“It quickly emerged that talent was by far the most crucial issue,” writes Wilson. “Without talent, companies cannot innovate; without innovation, there can be no growth.” The overriding message from the discussions with executive was that “their companies needed additional essential talents that are now undersupplied by the market. Beyond the traditional skills typically provided by business and engineering, our respondents came, as a group, to describe what we came to call a Third Space populated by essential softer skills provided by neither engineering nor business training.” Five such soft competencies were identified:
- Adaptability: “Demonstrate mental agility and resilience in ambiguous situations; be flexible when handling change and less likely to rely on stale legacy solutions. Happily think beyond black-and- white to the gray areas, and ask expansive, unexpected questions that lead to better solutions.”
- 360-degree thinking: “Think holistically – be capable of seeing the big picture, recognize patterns, and make imaginative leaps based on those patterns.”
- Intellectual curiosity: “Have a deep hunger to learn and grow. Show a desire to dig deep – to be creative and willing to risk and experiment in order to learn.”
- Cultural competence: “Have a capacity to think, act and move across multiple boundaries of functions, silos and global cultures, including the sometimes insular worlds of engineering, law, and business.”
- Empathy: “Demonstrate strong emotional intelligence as well as effective listening and collaboration skills. Have superior communication skills. Be smart, ambitious, yet humble enough to be inclusive and consider the views of others across a variety of disciplines, cultures and perspectives.”
Beyond these specific competencies, the study team uncovered a need for what they called Third Space Thinking - a more holistic level of thinking that helps individuals examine complex problems from different perspectives in order to arrive at more creative, out-of-the-box solutions. “The most sophisticated people can code switch back and forth between their hard and soft sides, and are capable of integrating the two to yield both power and subtlety in their thinking. These are, by far, the most valuable executives.”
Not surprisingly, these various competencies and thinking styles require excellent communication skills. These include carefully listening to and taking into account the opinions of others; helping convince or find common ground with people who hold different points of views; and explaining the solution to a complex problem or to a major strategic direction in the simplest possible language.
Effective communications is particularly important when dealing with disruptive transformations. We sometimes forget that while exciting, disruptive innovations are indeed disruptive, not only in the marketplace, but also for individuals and groups in our own organization. Change can be very difficult for many people, as they are being asked to move into unchartered territory. Do they have the required skills for whatever is ahead? How well will they personally fare in the new environment? The culture of the institution may not be able to stretch enough to implement the needed changes, even when the very survival of the organization might be at stake.
In the second phase, the Third Space Annenberg team partnered with Korn Ferry, - the world’s largest executive search firm, - and was thus able to test their initial conclusions by analyzing a Korn Ferry data base of almost 1,900 executives with a broad range of professional backgrounds. By combining qualitative and quantative information the study confirmed that companies indeed require skills beyond what engineering, MBA programs and communication schools are currently teaching.
These gaps have been known for a while and are being addressed, - to a greater or lesser extent, - in engineering departments and business schools. But the situation is somewhat different in communications and related disciplines. “This area of study is newer and smaller, an amalgam of different traditions (humanities, social sciences, rhetoric, cultural studies) and a wide range of empirical foci (from technology to the structure of media industries, to gender and to media impacts)… the field as a whole is less well known than business and engineering,” writes Dean Wilson.
“The good news is that the study of communications yields an understanding of rich texture, respect for the changing nature of audiences, the problematic nature of simply sending a message, and close attention to culture in all its forms.”
“The bad news is the flip side: the heterogeneity of approaches means that there is not a widely accepted fixed canon of core ideas in the field. It is much more an a la carte menu of ideas and methods than a prix fixe. Some communication professors will embrace Third Space Thinking; many will not, leaving the benefits uncertain for graduates of communication programs.”
“A second challenge is that much of communication has come out of rhetoric and humanities traditions; in contrast to business and engineering, there is not a long tradition of close cooperation in communication with communities of practice. Business schools work closely with businesses, from startups to big corporations. Medical schools collaborate with physicians. Professors at engineering schools often partner with their communities of practice in Silicon Valley. Such engagement, alas, is less likely with communication professors.”
There is lots to be done by both business and academia to address these talent gaps. “In the end, colleges and universities need to revise their curricula to create a steady supply of people with a combination of Third Space skills who can fill collaborative leadership roles immediately upon graduation. And companies need to work hard to locate, promote and retain these valuable workers, while assuring that they are not locked away in silos, but rather scattered throughout organizational functions where they can do the most good.”