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Data literacy: the foundation of data-driven culture


Organizations want to put data into the hands of those who add context and colour.

There’s a lot of talk these days about ‘democratizing data’, ‘enabling self-serve’ and ‘empowering citizen data-scientists’. 

Organizations of all sizes, across all industries, are looking for ways to give data to the people – from the frontline through to the C-suite – and putting data into the hands of those who can add context and colour to otherwise stark spreadsheets and statistics.

This trend towards enabling and empowering all functions of the organization to access, interpret and act on the data at its disposal is creating great opportunities for those who may not have had these responsibilities before. But while organizations all over the world are spending billions implementing the latest and greatest tools and systems to enable this, many are forgetting a critical piece of the puzzle — the people.

If the people within an organization are not equipped with the skills and competencies to read, write and comprehend data in their organizational context, we’re burdening them with an accountability that they’re not prepared to fulfill. It also contradicts the original intention of empowering people to make great decisions, implement new initiatives, and develop new and innovative products and services. It doesn’t matter how bright and shiny the systems and tools are if our people aren’t confident and capable to get the most out of them.

Enter data literacy.

There’s a lot of interest and good intent surrounding data literacy, but the majority of organizations are struggling to know where to start in making this a reality for their people. At Data To The People, we define data literacy as the ability to read, write and comprehend data – just as literacy is our ability to read, write and comprehend any other language. And whilst this definition might seem simple, it encompasses a range of competencies and skills that allow an individual to create, capture, store and manage the hottest property on the market – data.

Data literacy gives an individual the power to see through the numbers, find the meaning and connect the dots; a data literate individual has the ability to understand, communicate and create new value from the data they’ve been able to collect or access.

What many organizations are struggling with is how they can take a definition like this and turn it into practical activities and practices to build a shared understanding, awareness and appreciation of the capabilities – and the opportunities – that a data literate workforce can bring.

If organizations are serious about embedding data literacy, there needs to be acceptance, investment and enthusiasm from all areas of the business, not just certain departments.

How can companies go from creating data awareness to fostering data literacy and embracing a data-driven mindset and culture?

If we go back to my earlier point, we need to start putting people first. The money has already been invested in the systems and tools – it’s time to teach the people how to use them. More than this, it’s time to unlock the collective brainpower of your workforce and reward their curiosity.

Fostering a data literate organization and embracing a data-driven mindset and culture goes far beyond the presentation of new dashboards and metrics at the next leadership meeting, and much further than rolling out access to self-serve data and reporting platforms to all employees. It involves questioning the current practices, systems, beliefs and rituals that have shaped the culture of the organization and rebuilding them.

  • Questioning current practices:  What practices does the organization have in place to support the whole data value chain? Sure, you might have great processes in place to review and analyze different metrics on a regular cycle. You might even have an organization-wide forum where these results are discussed in detail. But what about the creation and management of the data that feeds into those metrics? What about the systems and processes that capture and store the data well before the results are discussed with the team?   Think about the systems your employees use to capture data (such as CRM and other transaction-based systems) and how well they’re set up to create valid, consistent, complete, and accurate data. Would you say your organization puts as much weight on the quality of data going in as it does on the analysis and use of the data coming out? What about the employees who are at the frontline of capturing and creating data – do they understand how important their role is in the organization’s data ecosystem? What practices and traditions are there to demonstrate to your ‘data frontline’ employees just how valued their efforts are in capturing quality data?
  • Understand the beliefs and rituals that inform your data culture:  Now for beliefs – does your organization really value data? Where does the creation, management and use of data sit in your organization; is it siloed away in discrete teams and functions, or is it a shared (and measured) responsibility and right for all?  How are your employees across all levels and all functions encouraged to explore, question, construct and challenge data? What are the rituals for celebrating the discoveries (both the minute and the mind-blowing) that your employees have made when they’ve combined this with that for the first time? How frequently are your employees encouraged to ask why?  When your teams are developing new products and services, are they thinking about ways they can leverage existing data, and perhaps more importantly – ways they can capture and generate new data?   A truly data-driven mindset and culture is visible and nurtured at all levels of the organization, across all functions and all dimensions of the workforce.

Data culture is not something to ‘set and forget’

Communicating the importance of data literacy and building excitement around it is really important – this is the first crucial step for any organization. Data literacy needs to be framed as a priority and a concern for everyone in the business, not just a select few.

In laying the foundations for a data-driven culture, it’s also important to find your ‘data champions’. Across an organization there will be hidden, passionate data champions who will be crucial in supporting others in using data day-to-day.

Once data literacy has been established as a priority for the business, the key to building it across the organization is to measure current levels, map a pathway, and develop people’s capabilities.

It’s difficult to improve on anything if you don’t know where you’re starting from – therefore it’s critical to measure individuals’ existing levels of data literacy before designing or implementing any programs. There are several tools available to help measure current levels of data literacy across the organization, including our Databilities assessment which is freely available online.

From here, you can map what ‘good’ looks like for the organization going forward. This will likely vary at different levels and across different roles within the organization and identifying this will help you to prioritize your efforts and direct resources strategically.

Now that you know where you’re starting from and where you’re going, it’s a matter of focusing on the gap in between. There is an ever-growing domain of tools, templates and training modules available to develop tailored education and information programs to address specific areas and foster a truly data-driven culture.

Lastly, it’s important to regularly reassess progress to-date, measure incremental improvements, identify gaps and make changes to your data literacy program as needs arise. Successful programs will not be a one-hit-wonder or a ‘set and forget’ activity. Effective programs will continue to adapt to the evolving needs of the organization and technological advancements.