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What are the most important soft skills in the digital era?

Reckon you’re creative? That might just be your biggest selling point

Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov, who lost a famous match to IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1996, has always insisted that the strongest, smartest and most productive systems won’t be wholly human or wholly machine, but a combination of both. “AI will help us to release human creativity,” he says. “Humans won’t be redundant or replaced, they’ll be promoted.”  

It’s worth holding onto that thought as we plunge into a world where technology and automation are making many traditional ‘hard skills’ (learned abilities that can be easily measured) obsolete. Experts reckon around 47% of current work will become redundant over the next few decades. Studies have also shown an 18% jump in the number of workers who use AI as part of their job – and that’s only over the last 12 months.  

As industry becomes more and more reliant on tech, we’re seeing diminishing focus on traditional ‘hard skills’ and employers instead placing value on something else: ‘soft skills’. These are aptitudes and abilities that are more innately human, much harder to measure, and (in theory) much less susceptible to automation. Things like leadership, creativity, resourcefulness, integrity, empathy and cooperation. They’re skills that can’t really be taught – but they can be cultivated.  

You might think ‘soft skills’, being tricky to measure and quantify, aren’t particularly valuable, but business leaders disagree. In fact, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner believes ‘soft skills’ are the biggest shortage currently facing global employment. “Somewhat surprisingly,” Weiner told CNBC, “interpersonal skills is where we’re seeing the biggest imbalance. Communication is the number one skills gap.” This makes sense. As machines become more adept at technical tasks, the inherent value of ‘human’ abilities increases.  

So which soft skills should candidates be focussing on? And how will they shape the next generation of digital industry?   



Creativity has topped (or nearly topped) LinkedIn’s soft skills survey for the last few years. Faced with more customer information and analytics than ever before, organisations need people who can synthesise raw data and turn it into something new. New ideas. New methodologies. A new way of thinking. In a recent survey of 50,000 professional skills employers searched for, creativity came out on top. Investor and business expert Mark Cuban has even said, “There’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there will be for programming.”  



Persuasion also ranks highly on LinkedIn’s soft skill survey. Broadly speaking, persuasion doesn’t necessarily mean manipulating people, it’s more about influence. The ability to put forward a point of view and then, through logic and rational argument and emotive appeals, win others over to your side. Persuasion has obviously driven Sales for decades, but (like most soft skills) the applications are endless. It’ll be particularly important for Data Analysts, Data Scientists and Developers who need to communicate value to the wider business, either to drive internal change or increase stakeholder buy-in.  


Emotional Intelligence  

Writer Daniel Goleman has been studying the effect of soft skills since the mid ‘90s. After extensive research, he found that, IQ and technical skills being roughly equal, emotional intelligence (which is a broad catch-all for interpersonal relationships) accounts for more than 90 per cent of career success. A survey of 500 senior executives even found emotional intelligence was a better predictor of success than experience.  



There’s a reason that collaborative methodologies like Scrum and Agile have gained so much traction over the last few years. Put simply: it’s more profitable and efficient to work as a team. (You can read all about the well-documented benefits of Agile, along with its caveats, over here). Collaboration is already one of the most highly prized soft skills, and employees who can demonstrate a long and successful history of teamwork are going to have a significant edge.  



The only constant in business is change. That was true 100 years ago, and it’s surely true today. New graduates are need to show adaptability more than anything else. And there are a couple of ways to go about this. You can commit to lifelong learning (a continuous process of acquiring new ‘hard skills’ and keeping up-to-date with emerging technologies). You can hone on your soft skills through professional development courses (like RMIT’s Digital Leadership certificate). And, in the words of LinkedIn, you can “show up with a positive attitude and open-minded professionalism.” It’s worth remembering: adaptability, almost by definition, doesn’t mean having all the answers. It means having the strength to figure them out.  

This article was originally published on 17 February 2020