OPINION: Does your workforce speak data?

Data literacy is the new foundation for the digital workplace (image pixelfit/iStockPhoto)

A major shift occurred almost 30 years ago when the notions of business process re-engineering and Six Sigma arrived. Most famously practiced as a part of Jack Welch's business strategy at GE, Six Sigma became part of the fabric of most Fortune 500 organizations by the late 1990s.

This wasn't a fad. It was a movement. A revolution. It made every employee see the business through a process lens focused on the customer. There were early pioneers of Six Sigma, eventually expanding into a set of standard techniques, toolsets, training and certified "black belts"—from the boardroom to the break room.

Today, we stand on the threshold of another shift, another movement, another revolution—data literacy. Just as workers in the 1990s had to work differently, the same is true now. No longer is organizational change defined entirely by the trinity of people, process and technology. There's a new core element in town—data … and it changes everything.

Amplified by diversity, "speaking data" is the new foundation for the digital workplace, whether you’re a creator or consumer of data-driven solutions. With the emergence of data, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as the new core elements of digital business and society, the ability to "speak data" in a common way has never been greater.

Data literacy and information as a second language must be treated as a core element of digital transformation.

Demand accelerating quickly

Gartner defines data literacy as the ability to read, write and communicate data in context. This includes an understanding of data sources and constructs, analytical methods and techniques applied, and the ability to describe the use, application and resulting value.

Data literacy is multifaceted and complex, requiring leaders who can see what’s possible with data and can foster a new common language. It requires shared methods, technologies, training and eventually, even certification. The changes to business will be profound.

Gartner expects that 80% of organizations will initiate deliberate competency development in the field of data literacy by 2020, acknowledging their extreme deficiency. In addition, 50% of organizations will lack sufficient AI and data literacy skills to achieve business value by 2020.

Not only must professionals involved in crafting data-driven solutions, products and services be educated, all relevant employees must learn to speak data as their new second language. Communities in which the language will flourish must also be developed and nurtured.

Cultivating data literacy

Every organization must cultivate the way data literacy will improve its ability to thrive in a business world that increasingly demands digital dexterity. Already fast, the pace of change is accelerating more with each year, demanding the creation of a digital workplace business strategy.

Those organizations that excel at delivering a digital workplace—and are therefore fueling workforce digital dexterity—will gain significant competitive advantage as digital transformations accelerate.

Properly implemented, a digital workplace strategy will help make employees more mobile, analytical, creative, collaborative and innovative through the use of tools, training and encouragement.

Organizations must be prepared to meet the needs of customers while staying ahead of competitors. The first step is understanding data literacy and how it can improve business results.

After culture, poor data literacy is the second biggest internal roadblock to success, according to Gartner's latest chief data officer (CDO) survey. A lack of talent and skills rounds out the top three. A sustained data literacy program addresses all three of these roadblocks.

Mastering information as a second language

Learning to "speak data" is like learning any language. It starts with understanding the basic terms and describing key concepts. In the case of data, there are three key areas of vocabulary: value (business value, outcomes, decisions, metrics); information (data sources, elements, quality, attributes); and analytics (analytical methods applied to data).

The language of data also has many dialects. Each one employs its own terms, vocabulary and metrics. The dialects are specific to the setting, business domain or industry domain. Hospitals, governments and the insurance industry, for example, each have their own way of talking data, as in patient outcomes, citizen outcomes and claims outcomes, respectively.

Everyone across the business, as well as customers and vendors, must learn the most relevant dialects. This allows everyone involved to discuss and use data to collaborate to fulfil business goals. As is true with any language, not everyone needs to speak data with the same level of proficiency—it all depends on each individual role.

Workforce training and development

Once you understand data literacy and the need for a common language and shared dialects across the organization, it's time to get started. The first step is to recognize that data literacy is part of an overall change management and organizational strategy.

Creating awareness across stakeholders is essential. Socializing the need for data literacy is an important step in preparing everyone for the change, convincing them that data literacy is a "thing," just like Six Sigma was a "thing." It needs an identity.

Valerie Logan is a senior director analyst at Gartner, focusing on information management strategies, advanced analytics and related change management topics. She is also a member of the Office of the CDO research team.

CIO Australia


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