The importance of data literacy across the organization

Julie Catsioulis

3 minute read

Companies are collecting more data than ever before in hopes of unveiling sophisticated insights about their customers, but there is one problem that stands in the way of those insights. That problem is a lack of data literacy. Most of your team likely struggles with interpreting and making sense of the data, nevermind being able to craft impactful stories. A lack of data literacy across the organization limits discussion and debate, making it impossible to produce factual, data-based decisions.

Data can be a powerful tool, but (as with any language) only if everyone in the organization is able to speak it. Employees, leadership, and executives need a common understanding when talking about data. In the same way a single Spanish-speaking person leading a meeting doesn’t allow for other language speakers to participate, having only one or two people who understand data leaves out the ideas, questions, and solutions the rest of the team might contribute.Data skills are now essential for almost every role in every organization.

Data Literacy – the second language of your business

Data literacy is the ability to collect, manage, evaluate, and apply data in a critical matter. Data-literate individuals can ask and answer relevant questions using data. They interpret, understand, and question the results of data analysis, and put these results into the context of the organization’s larger strategy and objectives.

Most importantly, data literacy makes it possible for people to argue using data. Data literacy gives team members the ammunition to support their cases and helps prevent the negative conflicts that can come from passionate discussions. Data literacy allows people to have strong, positive, and productive debates based on facts, not emotions.

It also allows people to make decisions that differ from their initial gut feelings or instincts. It’s similar to how, in debate class, you may have been asked to debate for the side with which you didn’t agree. Forced to look at data, statistics, and facts, it’s possible to have a more structured conversation while taking personal feelings out of the argument. Likewise, in business, sometimes the best decisions aren’t the ones that you make with your gut. Having the right dashboards, metrics, insights, and understanding of what the data is displaying gives you the ability to make these decisions more confidently.

Facilitating data literacy across your organization

How, then, can organizations improve data literacy and incorporate more data into their decision-making and innovation processes?

Increasing data literacy will take time and intentional effort. While it is certainly possible that an organization’s data literacy will improve organically as new employees join the team or team members improve their own skills, it is far faster and more effective to improve with a purpose as part of the larger business strategy.

Many large organizations, like Airbnb, have created their own in-house data training programs. These data universities are headed by specialized teams and are intended to improve data literacy across all teams and all employees. Through big investments, they can implement large-scale changes that reach thousands of people.

While this specialized training is a viable option for the largest companies, it may not be as realistic for small-and medium-sized businesses.

Instead, these companies should identify who in the organization already has a natural inclination toward data. These are the people who bring data into conversations or ask questions about data and how it can be used. By encouraging these individuals and giving them inherent permission to have these conversations within their teams and across teams, they can become data champions who serve to get more people involved and thinking about how data plays a role in the company.

Next, organizations should look to educate employees through training programs and online resources. These don’t need to be as sophisticated as the “universities” created by large companies but can instead be based on information that’s available, including trusted and reputable online sources.

Finally, organizations should start looking for ways to create cross-functional teams that bring ideas, data, and insights into conversations. Data should be accessible and available when it’s needed. By giving people the right software and capabilities, and the ability to interpret and understand what they are seeing, data can become a useful tool when discussing how best to proceed to achieve company goals.

No matter which approaches you take, metrics should be put in place so that it’s possible to track progress and show how employees are improving with respect to data literacy. By benchmarking where you are now, where you want to go, and how you will get there, you’ll be able to evaluate the effectiveness of your company’s efforts and adjust for continuous improvements.

Improving data literacy for better organizational performance

Not everyone needs to achieve the same level of fluency as a data scientist, and the level of data literacy required for each employee will vary depending on their role. However, it’s important that everyone at the table can feel comfortable and confident when participating in conversations involving data. 

By increasing data literacy in all employees, not just a select few, you’re able to bring new ideas to the discussion and have productive, positive debates that lead to better decision-making and new innovations.

If you would like support with the level of data literacy within your organization, talk to Trendline today.

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About the Author(s)

Julie Catsioulis

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