Data literacy – what’s the hype?

In a series of two articles, I will reveal why data literacy is a business game-changer and why, at your peril, you might ignore this now well endorsed fact.

We have long since moved away from concerning ourselves with terms such as computer competency, computer proficiency and computer literacy – all of which have, in the past, been used interchangeably.

We are living in the age of digital transformation which affects every aspect of our lives, businesses, education and more, and each interaction in this digital world leaves a data footprint. Our smart devices have become our diaries, communications platforms and even entertainment.

Although each of the foregoing terms are utilised to define fundamental computer skills, this is not the end goal. As far back as 2003, the notion of information literacy had already been introduced and was defined as the ability to recognise what information is needed, and being capable of locating, evaluating and using it effectively. Terminology evolves very quickly in our digital age and we have come a long way since the days of information literacy − today data literacy is the name of the game.

Data literacy is defined as the ability to read, write and communicate data in context, with an understanding of the data sources and constructs, analytical methods plus techniques, and the ability to describe the use case application with resultant business value or outcome, namely an improved decision and action.

Data and analytics have been in great demand for some years, with businesses investing time and money into these technologies. However, the current disruption has created urgency around driving results, and business leaders are seeking answers to their dilemma of discovering the source/s of repeatable and sustainable value.

Global research guru Gartner reports that boards of directors and CEOs believe that data and analytics are “the” game-changing technologies to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and place both as the number one strategic priority for 2021.

Moreover, Gartner goes on to predict that by 2023, data literacy will become an explicit and necessary driver of business value, as demonstrated by its formal inclusion in over 80% of data and analytics strategies and change management programmes.

The current state of data literacy

These are authoritative statements from one of the most formidable research houses on the planet, but do they get your attention? If not, the following may assist to get your chair in the upright position and have you paying intense attention to the urgency for data literacy programmes in your business.

Eight out of 10 decision-makers are making key business decisions based on what they might describe as gut instinct − essentially flying by the seat of their pants.

In a recent global study of more than 7 300 business decision-makers across the world, just 24% consider themselves data literate. Let’s spell that out: 76% of all business decision-makers were found to be ‘data illiterate’. That means they lack the ability to adequately analyse and read data that would enable them to make informed/critical business decisions.

This is a percentage we may been able to live with in the past in world that functioned on ‘gut feel’ for operational decision-making and predicated the future on the basis of experience and not on facts revealed by data analysis. That will not cut it in today’s era of rapid change augmented by immense uncertainty – both pose a risk to sustainability if not prioritised and dealt with through informed decision-making processes.

With most companies having access to, and relying on data more than ever before, it is interesting to note that eight out of 10 decision-makers are currently making key business decisions based on what they might describe as gut instinct − essentially flying by the seat of their pants.

The good news is that the results of this survey present both a challenge and an opportunity – that’s the upside of the story. The downside is that companies not addressing this knowledge gap and that are making no attempt to upskill their workforce and key decision-makers will be left behind in the next 18 months.

Therefore, data literacy – ie, the ability to read, understand, use and, very importantly, communicate with data productively − is so important. Being highly “data literate” means you can transform data into actual insights. Think about it: it’s pointless having access to data if you don’t know how to correctly interpret and use it – that much is obvious.

So, what’s in it for businesses that have data literacy programmes in place?

To answer this, I will take a snippet from the great Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. So, if you are one of the companies addressing this glaring gap with data literacy programmes − ‘Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it’; or in other words, you have seized the opportunity to become, or further entrench, the firm as an industry leader.

In times of great change and uncertainty often large transformations can take place. Market share that took years to win or lose is captured in months and brand-new opportunities come to the businesses that have the tools to see, and act, timeously.

It’s important to understand that data is no longer the sole domain of engineers, scientists, or business intelligence analysts. Today, everyone has access to it and should be using data in their day-to-day tasks.

Business leaders need to take a holistic view of how their organisations operate, from the junior administrator accessing sales report figures, all the way through to C-Suite executives looking at forecasting models.

By upskilling employees and increasing their data literacy, they are empowered to better utilise the data so readily available to them, giving them the ability to:

  • Make better business decisions based on actual insights.
  • Mitigate risk and increase reward through data-driven actions.
  • Help make the organisation more productive and efficient and thereby ultimately increasing profitability.

Imagine a business ticking over with ultimate optimisation of resources and providing greater efficiencies on every level? This may sound too good to be true but that is not the case.

In my second article, I will explain how to get started with a digital literacy programme and outline the tangible business value it will deliver to your organisation.

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