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When it comes to data literacy, I don't like your odds

It’s not personal, it’s just business. And the truth of the matter is, the vast majority of businesses around the world have a lot of ground to make up if they are going to have a data literate workforce to carry them through the fourth industrial revolution. Sadly, a survey by Qlik found that just 24% of business decision makers across the globe feel fully confident in their ability to read, work with, analyse and argue with data. In an every increasingly data-fueled economy, are we satisfied that just 24% of us consider ourselves data literate?

Surely 24% is better than nothing?

Of course, but I’d like you to take a moment and think about the team you work in. Actually — think about the leadership and executive teams at your organisation and imagine them sitting in the boardroom, debating and determining the strategy and goals for the next year. One in four of those in the room can ‘talk data’, the other three cannot. One in four of those in the room can make sense of, interpret and argue with the data on the table, the other three cannot. Sure, there may be a very good argument to say that these leaders haven’t gotten to where they are now without a basic level of data literacy — but bear with me for one more moment! Individual attributes aside, odds are that one in four sitting at that table are more comfortable with data driven decision making than the other three.

But we’ve got a whole team focused on data!

Most leading organisations have made significant investments in building teams of data gurus. Some have even invited these data gurus into the ‘C-Suite’ with the creation of Chief Data Officer and Chief Analytics Officer functions! These are all great things — but they’re not enough. Come back to the boardroom visualisation with me: think about the three in the room who can’t ‘speak data’ — they may be comfortable in reading analysis that’s been prepared for them, but they probably wouldn’t consider themselves confident if they had to undertake the analysis themselves.

In a corporate world where we demand evidence-based decisions, data-driven design and solutions — what do these three have to offer then? How about the experience, relationships, history, and perspective that they have garnered over their collective careers? Sure, they may not be at ease with the latest data governance practices, and they may not be very interested in the data architecture that holds your organisation together — but they’ve got a wealth of experience and insight to offer. These three add the colour, the light and the darkness we so desperately need to fill in the black and white outlines of analyses. More than that, these three are the sanity check and the human defense to the bits and bytes and artificial intelligence that is increasingly shaping our world.

Not a fan of those analogies? How about some hard facts then — the Data Literacy Index, commissioned by Qlik on behalf of the Data Literacy Project, is a study conducted by IHS Markit, PSB Research and academics from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. The findings from the study, the first of its kind, were startling:

  • Workforce data literacy has a proven correlation with corporate performance. Organizations ranked in the top third of the Data Literacy Index are associated with three to five percent greater enterprise value (market capitalization);

  • Based on the average organization size of this study ($10.7b enterprise value), enterprises that have higher corporate data literacy scores can have $320-$534 million in higher enterprise value; and

  • Improved corporate data literacy positively impacts other measures of corporate performance as well, including gross margin, Return-on-Assets, Return-on-Equity and Return-on-Sales.

Being a data literate organisation doesn’t mean the whole staff is comprised of data scientists and data analysts. Far from it!

A data literate organisation is empowered, empowering, educated and enquiring

A data literate organisation hires data literate staff and invests in the data literacy of its existing staff with ongoing education and training. A data literate organisation ensures individuals have the necessary data they need to make decisions in their role and has the resources and tools available to capture and present insights in a way that supports data-driven decision making. A data literate organisation displays widespread use of data throughout the organisation, so that every department can derive insight and act on it.

Back to the boardroom

We’ve been focusing on the executives in the boardroom — but the same can be said for every team, function, and department across the organisation. This problem is not industry-specific, and it does not discriminate by region or locality.

This is a challenge for all organisations, all countries, all industries, and all people.

Fortunately for us, there is a growing movement of individuals and associations who are desperate to see levels of data literacy grow exponentially across the globe. Partnerships such as the Data Literacy Project have been established to bring about a data literate culture for all. Universities and schools across the globe are increasingly investing in the data literacy of their students. Governments and political institutions are increasingly recognizing the need to foster data literacy across all communities.

What’s stopping us?

We’ve got the evidence — we’ve got the hard facts to show that data literate organisations are able to unlock greater enterprise value.

We’ve got the tools: there’s a bevy of resources, assessment tools and methodologies available in the ether.

We just need courage: we need to be prepared to try and fail and try again, we need to accept that this may take some time. But most of all, we need to believe in our collective capacity to be data brilliant.


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