How to increase data literacy in your organization

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Just as Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press turned a largely illiterate European population into a body of readers, we also need an equivalent printing press for corporate data. As much as we like to proclaim the possibilities of data to enable digital transformation, without increasing data literacy, those possibilities will not materialize. Fortunately, there are ways to improve data literacy among employees and customers.

Why Data Literacy Matters

Although we often focus on technologies that enable big data, from Apache Iceberg to Google BigQuery, these technologies fail without people understanding the data behind them. As Svetlana Sicular of Gartner said over a decade ago, “Learning Hadoop is easier than learning the business of the business,” or its data.

The nuances of data – knowing what questions to ask that data and getting a sense of the signal among all the noise – are essential to master and serve as a precursor to mastering data technologies. Thus, a more recent Gartner article continues:[B]Being data savvy – having the ability to understand, share common knowledge, and have meaningful conversations about data – can enable organizations to seamlessly adopt existing and emerging technologies.

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Unfortunately, as an extensive survey by Accenture revealed, only 21% of the more than 9,000 respondents feel they are in control of data. Without data literacy, the data deluge will drown us, rather than transform the way we care about customers or engage employees. So how can we increase data literacy?

Tips for increasing data literacy across your organization

Among other sources, Gartner offers a series of suggestions for how data managers can build a data literacy program for their organizations. Other tips for increasing enterprise-wide data literacy include focusing more on data rather than technology, especially in decision-making processes.

Focus more on data rather than technology

As an analysis from the MIT Sloan School of Management has described, it is important to understand the purpose. Data literacy is the ability to read, work with, analyze and argue with data. The focus should be on understanding and using the data, not necessarily on the tools used to ingest or analyze that data.

“If we’re spending 80% on tech, 20% on data, flip it — make tech super easy so you can spend more time on data,” said Cindi Howson, chief data strategist at ThoughtSpot.

The foundation of any good data literacy plan is a strong focus on data, not technology.

Establish data skills training

With this in mind, the next step is to establish a data skills academy within the organization, preferably with management support. Rather than trying to instill a general view of the importance of data, the program should be tailored to the particular needs and data sources of a given company.

Similarly, the business should use examples that are cross-functional in nature and clearly communicate how the data can be useful across the business. Although some skills, such as statistics or research, can seem daunting, emphasizing their successful use can make learning them both desirable and achievable.

Include data in decision-making processes

Next, make sure data is a key and obvious part of decision-making. Data literacy is as much a cultural phenomenon as anything else, and when leaders insist on questioning their own decisions with potentially adverse data, it sends the message that data matters.

This becomes doubly true if the company puts data in the hands of employees through dashboards and other means, so that they are empowered to use the data to support or challenge the decisions made. In other words, the more managers and other executives demonstrate a reliance on data, the easier it becomes to instill a data-driven culture more broadly.

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How to increase data literacy among your customers

Savvy customers can be your most loyal customers if data is used to help them make informed decisions. For example, I love the US federal regulations that require national restaurant chains and other food vendors to provide calorie information. It helps me make informed decisions about what to eat.

Yeah, that means I’ll almost never eat that 1000 calorie burger from Shake Shack or at least grab the fries and shake them, but it gives the seller more data on what want potential customers. By offering data to inform customer decisions, it helps the business become even more data-driven.

The food example is simple to understand, which is the cardinal rule to help increase customer data literacy. Much like data literacy within the business, customer data literacy depends on making data accessible, easy to find, and easy to interpret. This is one of the first innovations AWS brought to cloud computing: easy-to-understand, easy-to-use pricing. You didn’t need a Ph.D. to understand the model or the data behind it.

In short, successful companies will treat data literacy as a key part of the product they sell. By empowering employees and customers to make more informed, data-driven decisions, companies are positioning themselves to earn employee loyalty and customer trust.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB, but the opinions expressed here are my own.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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