Why your company needs more data-literate staff

It helps to have data literacy throughout the organization instead of leaving it to data scientists and IT.

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The move to data-driven organizations and high-impact analytics requires data literacy skills in all areas and levels of organizations. That's why data literacy in business units is a must if companies are to realize the value of leveraging data throughout their organizations. 

SEE: Cheat sheet: Data management (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

A major challenge in 2020 will be for companies to develop data literacy in their employees so they can be more self-reliant and confident with the data that they query for business insights.

Gartner defines data literacy as the "ability to read, write and communicate data in context, including an understanding of data sources and constructs, analytical methods and techniques applied—and the ability to describe the use case, application, and resulting value."

But training a customer service manager, an HR coordinator, or a C-level marketing executive in data literacy skills isn't so easy: "I have people who write the reports that I want," said a manufacturing executive acquaintance. "If I'd wanted to become an IT guy, I would have majored in that."

Attitudes like this can't persist in organizations that want to become data-savvy beyond the pockets of data expertise they already have in IT and data science. Leaders of the business have to believe that data insights are critical.

"Data is the new oil, and the foundation of the fourth industrial revolution," said Jordan Morrow, global head of data literacy at Qlik, which provides data-visualization tools. "With the volumes of data available and being created daily, organizations and employees that make the best use of data will find success. An enhanced level of data literacy enables everyone to be empowered to use data for higher performance."

SEE: How to be a successful Chief Data Officer: 3 tips (TechRepublic)

Does management necessarily believe this? A data analytics leader who recognized the lack of data-driven thinking in his company approached management about the need to develop data literacy. Immediately, the analyst was met with resistance. Management didn't want to be burdened with learning how to analyze data beyond what they were already doing. Their response to the data analyst was in line with what the manufacturing executive stated when he said he didn't want to major in IT.

There are pundits who believe that some kind of data literacy training regime can work to improve data literacy, and as a former corporate training director, I would like to believe that.

But I have also been a CIO and a VP of marketing and of manufacturing. I can tell you from standing in those shoes that there are already enough day-to-day business pressures that the last thing they want is to sit in a data literacy training class.

While there will certainly be C-level executives who are data savvy, the majority of them, as well as their middle managers, will continue to rely on data-savvy experts on their staffs to develop the analytics reports they need and work with IT and data scientists to extract business insights from the data. However, a sound data literacy approach in most organizations should be focused on the key people in each area of the business.

SEE: Managing AI and ML in the enterprise 2020 (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

These are likely to be everyday staff with a talent for working with data and enjoying it. They are also individuals who understand the business. They can converse with key leaders in their respective functional areas to target the business cases, questions and insights that can hopefully be derived from the data. If these key players are further fortified with data literacy skills, they will become even more effective, and their work will move their companies further down the path to becoming data-driven.

An approach like this works for business units within the company. It also works for IT and professional trainers, who now have a willing and enthusiastic audience of key staff who recognize the value that data skills development brings to their roles and their careers. Management, too, is likely to see the payoff, because they'll get the answers and actionable business insights that they've always been looking for. 

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