How many concepts are so captivating that students are willing to study them for no credits? Ask any educator that question and they will tell you: not many.
So when Dr. Ernest Wilson III was approached by his students who wanted to learn more about Third Space Thinking (TST), he immediately said ‘yes’. Once the semester ended, Dr. Wilson met with his students for another month—on his dime—to discuss his “survival tool kit for millennials.”
Today, Dr. Wilson teaches an entire class dedicated to TST and is the founder and director of the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking. The Center is devoted to research, teaching and executive education on soft skills in the digital age.
“Maybe a generation ago people were looking for MBAs and engineers,” says Dr. Wilson. “Now they’re looking for people with good communication skills to lead their companies and organizations.”
Dr. Wilson describes TST as “a communication-driven methodology for solving problems and seizing opportunities in the digital world.”
It utilizes a communication-based method to frame and solve problems through the lens of five essential soft skills: adaptability, cultural competency, empathy, intellectual curiosity and 360 degree thinking.
His research into TST started four years ago, when he noticed a shift in the workforce—a gap in market talent as a result of rapidly changing digital industries. How was the world going to keep up? For Dr. Wilson, the solution was simple: if these shifts in the workforce were going to be amended, we would have to change the way we think, starting with how we educate.
“I was talking to a lot of people who had MBAs or engineering degrees… and they said ‘well we understand business, we understand engineering, but there’s this other zone or domain that we don’t understand adequately,’” recalls Dr. Wilson. “So I made it my task to try and define the Third Space that is not the engineering space, or the MBA space, but is something that is based on communication and it’s quite distinct.”
Dr. Wilson interviewed senior executives in public relations, strategic communications, media, and entertainment, and as his research progressed, he realized that what he was after was “creating a different style of professional” one who can draw on the skills of business, academia and, most importantly, communication, “to make a unique set of skills.”
“The mix of these necessary talents evolves over a career trajectory,” he says. “Together they constitute a new way of strategic thinking for collaboration, innovation and enhanced performance.”
In his research, Dr. Wilson found that the number one skill all employers were looking for is communication
One would think that this would be an obvious market advantage for public relations and corporation communications professionals, but that’s not how Dr. Wilson feels.
“I think the communications field and the public relations field are really not living up to their potential,” he says. “If the world is saying communication is by far the most valuable skill they are looking for in the people they hire, then our field should be articulating that. We should own that field and, frankly, I don’t think we do.”
The Center for Third Space Thinking, which has been open for less than a year, has become the “go-to resource” for anyone interested in using soft skills to improve individual and organizational performance. In addition to offering a college course in TST, it also runs executive leadership development experiences and boot camps, as well as community empowerment programs for underserved communities.
Dr. Wilson, who previously served two terms as the Walter Annenberg Chair in Communication and Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, says “taken together, the skills of Third Space Thinking add up to proficiency in communication.”
“In the era of Big Data, communication entails more than just sending messages, adding to the rich treasure trove available to anyone with an internet connection. Today, it means distilling that vast sea of information, analyzing it, interpreting it, and sharing it. The business leaders who already understand the importance of Third Space Thinking are thriving; those who fail to do so will be left behind.”
“Exploring the Third Space” was written by first semester students Ziwei Chen, Courtney Mahrt and Jennifer Rodriguez. They interviewed the subjects, wrote the story, and helped direct the design.
Illustrations by Ben Weeks, Canada.