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The Role of Data Literacy in the Digital Workplace

October 22,2019 Learning and Development
David Roe
By David Roe

The digital workplace is in a state of continuous evolution. What worked a year ago is no longer a priority and what is working now is already on its way out. What never changes in all this is the role of data and how to use it. In a commentary on the recent Gartner Hype Cycle for Analytics and Business Intelligence, 2019 (registration required), Jim Hare, research vice president at Gartner noted data and analytics leaders are currently making the transition to augmented analytics with a view to building a digital culture and operationalizing and scaling analytics initiatives.

At the heart of all that is data literacy. He pointed out that data literacy, digital ethics, privacy, enterprise and vendor data-for-good initiatives encompass digital culture. Any organization that aims to derive value from data and is on its journey towards digital transformation must focus on developing data literacy. 

Defining Data Literacy

Earlier this year, Kasey Panetta, brand content manager at Gartner, defined data literacy as the ability to read, write and communicate data in context, including an understanding of data sources and constructs, analytical methods and techniques applied — and the ability to describe the use case, application and resulting value. She added that data literacy is the ability to work and communicate in a common data language and, as an underlying component of digital dexterity, another important skill for digital business

Kenneth Sanford is a San Diego-based data science and analytics consultant. He pointed out that without a basic understanding of the origin of the data, we cannot hope to identify trends, create machine learning models, or use the tools of AI. Data literacy, he explained, is the ability to understand and communicate the data generating process. That is, what do these data mean? and what caused these data to exist? This might involve summarizing data, but in its most elemental form, it entails telling a qualitative story about the data. “There is a world in the near future where every member of an organization will either be an expert in working with data in its atomistic form or explaining the data in the same form. With my clients, I teach a multistep process whereby each participant is either an expert in querying information or an expert at understanding the data generating process. In a digitally transformed organization, everyone has a role in data,” he said.

He cited the example of a bank that wants to build a machine learning model to augment the loan approval process. The data scientist will be responsible for querying past loan data and building models. However, the loan officer will be the only person intimately familiar with the data to identify data quality issues that will assist the data scientist in understanding the data generating process as they actually know how the loan application information was codified. The loan officer has substantial subject matter expertise in the data generating process that the data scientist/analyst will never be able to replicate.

Related Article: Knowledge Management and Big Data: Strange Bedfellows?

Data Literacy’s Growing Importance

As defined by MIT, data literacy is the ability to read, work with, analyze and argue with data. And with IDC analysts forecasting a ten-fold increase in worldwide data by 2025 — a data literate workforce is more important than ever before, Jordan Morrow, global head of data literacy at King of Prussia, Pa.-based Qlik, told us. This is a skill that empowers employees across the entire organization to ask the right questions of data and machines, make decisions and communicate it to others. For enterprises, this can mean a greater competitive advantage, an increase in the bottom line and a breakdown of organizational silos.

Citing recent Qlik research, he said that enterprises with strong corporate data literacy have a 3 to 5% greater enterprise value. That translates to $320 to $534 million. This means it's not just up to the chief data officer or data scientists to make sense of data. Every employee must be data literate to effectively contribute to an organization. Moreover, a data literate workforce ensures that data, when analyzed and presented, is accurate and can be trusted. For example, making decisions based on incorrectly built or interpreted visualizations and analytics, or using irrelevant (or not enough) data to make decisions can cost organizations millions of dollars. “This business value makes data literacy a critical element to any organization to succeed in today's data-driven world. It helps break down the barriers between different functions in an organization and it ensures businesses are capitalizing on one of their most valuable assets, notably data,” he said.

Related Article: 9 Voice Datasets You Should Know About

Data Literacy is Business Survival Skill

For Privitar CMO Bob Canaway, data literacy is fast becoming a business survival skill. Today's workers who can effectively drive business outcomes from data will be tomorrow's leaders. While most organizations have imperatives to bring data quickly and safely into the hands of data consumers, regulations and internal data privacy and security policies can make it difficult for data literate employees to gain access to safe and usable data. “Not only should increasing data literacy be on the mind of every executive, but also improving the management of that data using a modern data architecture, to avoid unnecessarily exposing sensitive customer data,” he said.

For Vaclav Vincalek, CEO of Vancouver-based PCIS, the more accurate term is data awareness. Through education and training in these topics, workers people can become aware of what benefits data can bring to the organization. They can also act as an early warning system for when it can be dangerous and misused.

The simplest example of using data in a positive way is using Google Analytics to find useful information to understand your audience and create content that appeals to them. But on the flip side, you have Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Clearly, having awareness creates capabilities, for good or ill. “Understanding the data insights and imagining the possibilities can drive new opportunities and strategy and provide a competitive edge.

The 2018 Gartner Annual Chief Data Officer Survey found that by 2020, 80% of organizations will initiate deliberate competency development in the field of data literacy, acknowledging their extreme deficiency. It also found that by 2020, 50% of organizations will lack sufficient AI and data literacy skills to achieve business value. With a growing dependency on AI, machine learning and other data driven applications, the need to ensure data literacy across digital workforces has never been greater.

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