Data literacy is the ability to read, work with, analyze, and communicate with data.
As businesses have become increasingly digital, all business functions are generating valuable data that can guide their decisions and optimize their performance.
Employees now have data available to augment their experience and intuition with analytical insights. Leading organizations are using this data to answer their every question — including questions they didn’t know they had.
The chief data officer’s (CDO) role in data literacy and ensuring that data literacy efforts are successful is to be the chief evangelist and educator to the organization.
Standardizing basic data training across the organization and creating a center of excellence for self-service in all departments can help ensure everyone can benefit from data literacy.
“As the leader of data and analytics, CDOs can no longer afford to work exclusively with data scientists in siloed environments,” explains Paul Barth, Qlik’s global head of data literacy. “They must now work to promote a culture of data literacy in which every employee is able to use data to the benefit of their role and of their employer.”
Cultural Mindset on Data
This culture starts with a change in mindset: It’s imperative that every employee, from new hires fresh out of college all the way to the C-suite, can understand the value of data.
At the top, CDOs can make the strongest case for improving data literacy by highlighting the benefits of becoming a data-driven organization.
For example, McKinsey found that, among high-performing businesses, data and analytics initiatives contributed at least 20% to earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT), and according to Gartner, enterprises will fail to identify potential business opportunities without data-literate employees across the organization.
Abe Gong, CEO and co-founder of Superconductive, adds for an organization to be data literate, there needs to be a critical mass of data-literate people on the team.
“A CDO’s role is to build a nervous system with the right process and technical infrastructure to support a shared understanding of data and its impact across the organization,” he says. “They promote data literacy at the individual level as well as building that organizational nervous system of policies, processes, and tools.”
Data Literacy: Start with Specific Examples
From his perspective, the way to build data literacy is not by doing some giant end-to-end system or a massive overhaul, but rather by coming up with specific discrete examples that really work.
“I think you start small with doable challenges and a small number of stakeholders on short timelines,” he says. “You get those to work, then iterate and add complexity.”
From his perspective, data-literate organizations simply think better together and can draw conclusions and respond to new information in a way that they couldn’t if they didn’t understand how data works.
“As businesses prepare for the future of work and the advancements that automation will bring, they need employees who are capable of leading with data, not guesswork,” Barth notes. “When the C-suite understands this, they will be eager to make data literacy a top priority.”
He says CDOs need to take the lead and properly educate staff about why they should appreciate, pay attention to and work with data.
“Data literacy training can greatly help in this regard and can be used to highlight the various tools and technologies employees need to ensure they can make the most of their data,” he adds.
As CDOs work to break down the data barriers and limitations that are present in so many firms, they can empower more employees with the necessary skills to advance their organization’s data strategy.
“And as employees become more data literate, they will be better positioned to help their employers accelerate future growth,” Barth says.
Formalizing Data Initiative and Strategies
Data literacy should start with a formal conversation between people charged with leading data initiatives and strategies within the organization.
The CDO or another data leader should craft a thoughtful communication plan that explains why the team needs to become data literate and why a data literacy program is being put into place.
“While surveys suggest few are confident in their data literacy skills, I would advise against relying on preconceptions or assumptions about team members’ comfort in working with data,” Barth says. “There are a variety of free assessment tools in the market, such as The Data Literacy Project, to jumpstart this process.”
However, training is only the beginning of what businesses need to build a data literate culture: Every decision should be supported with data and analysis, and leaders should be prepared to model data-driven decision-making in meetings and communications.
“The only playbook that I have seen work for an incoming CDO is to do a fast assessment of where the opportunities are and then look for ways to create immediate value,” Gong adds. “If you can create some quick but meaningful wins, you can earn the trust you need to do deeper work.”
For opportunities, CDOs should be looking for places the organization can make better use of its data on a short timeline — it’s usually weeks, not months.
“Once you’ve built a library of those wins and trust in your leadership, you can have a conversation about infrastructure — both technical and cultural,” he says. “Data literacy is part of the cultural infrastructure you need.”
Hands-On Data Workshops
In addition to online, self-paced learning, you should offer live group sessions and hands-on workshops to increase participation and encourage collaboration.
“They should also regularly ask for data from their teams,” Barth adds. “Of course, different jobs require different levels of data literacy, so any data literacy training should be tailored to each business persona.”
Finally, Barth explains that data leaders should define the metrics that will be used to evaluate the program and remember that change takes time.
“Data literacy will not be mastered by every employee overnight,” he says.
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