7 steps HR can take to improve data literacy in the workforce

data literacy

Just as literacy is our ability to read, write and comprehend language, data literacy is our ability to read, write and understand data. More than that, it’s the ability to derive meaningful and useful information from data and to apply this to create better products, services and experiences, writes Jane Crofts. 

Here’s a scary thought — more than 90% of the world’s total electronic data has been created in the last two years alone. And by the end of this year it’s estimated 1.7MB of data will be created for every person, every second. So what is the value of this data and what exactly should we be doing with it?

This is the question many businesses are asking themselves as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, a time of intense digital transformation where the use of data is completely changing the way we do business.

Across the organisation there will no doubt be hidden, passionate data champions, and what better time to discover them and amplify their skills. Call on these team members to help the organisation on its journey.

Before organisations start considering how to leverage the data available to them though, there’s a critical question that needs to be asked — do we have the necessary skillset to derive meaningful insights from data and convert this knowledge into action? In most cases, the answer is no.

Forrester says that 74% of businesses want to be data-driven, but only 29% are successful at putting analytics into action. While McKinsey found that 70% of digital transformation programs don’t reach their goals, which means that of the $1.3 trillion that was spent on digital transformations in 2019, $900 billion was wasted on efforts that did not yield intended results.

Even more alarming, Gartner predicts that by the end of 2020, 50% of organisations will lack sufficient AI and data literacy skills to achieve business value. It’s not a technological challenge that we’re grappling with though, it’s a human one, a lack of data literacy.

The answer isn’t simply hiring more data analysts though, in fact, the number of data professionals in the world is already insufficient to meet demand.

What does it mean to be data literate?

Just as literacy is our ability to read, write and comprehend language, data literacy is our ability to read, write and understand data. More than that, it’s the ability to derive meaningful and useful information from data and to apply this to create better products, services and experiences.

Data literacy is not just the domain of a few teams across the organisation – all workers from the shopfloor to the C-suite will bring greater value to the business by better understanding how data is entwined in their everyday tasks and being empowered to realise its full potential. We need to upskill the entire workforce to be data literate, and HR has a critical role to play in developing this competency across the organisation.

While this may seem a daunting task, the good news is that data literacy is a learned skill, and with the right tools and support, anyone can become data literate.

Here are seven steps that HR professionals can take to improve the data literacy of their workforce and prepare for the future of work:

  1. Make data literacy an issue

HR professionals have an incredibly important role to play in the design and implementation of any organisational data literacy program, starting with building awareness and excitement around the possibilities that a truly data-driven organisation brings.  For data literacy to be taken seriously, HR must first convey how important it is to all employees, including those in traditionally non-data roles.  Data literacy is a concern for every person across the organisation, not just a select few. And like any culture change, it needs to start from the top, so getting executives’ buy-in and support will be crucial:

Even more alarming, Gartner predicts that by the end of 2020, 50% of organisations will lack sufficient AI and data literacy skills to achieve business value. It’s not a technological challenge that we’re grappling with though, it’s a human one, a lack of data literacy.

  1. Locate your data champions

Across the organisation there will no doubt be hidden, passionate data champions, and what better time to discover them and amplify their skills. Call on these team members to help the organisation on its journey by tasking them to support others in using data in their day-to-day activities. Celebrating your data champions’ skills and drawing from their knowledge will go a long way in laying the foundations for a data-driven culture.

  1. Take stock

It’s difficult to design a data literacy initiative if you don’t know where you’re starting from, therefore it’s vital to measure your organisation’s existing levels of data literacy before you roll out any new programs. There are a number of assessments and measurement tools available to help measure the current level of data literacy across a diverse range of employees or the organisation as a whole.

  1. Set a goal

What does ‘good’ look like when it comes to data literacy for your organisation? Start setting goals by mapping out what data literacy looks like at different levels and in different roles within the organisation. Doing this will help you to prioritise your efforts and direct resources to the right places. Unsurprisingly, some roles require higher levels of data literacy than others, for example the needs of a retail assistant will differ greatly from someone working in digital marketing. The retail assistant’s data role will most likely lay in creating and sharing data — through collecting customer details, encouraging database subscriptions, etc., whereas the marketer’s data role will involve accessing and analysing data to create targeted campaigns and communications.

  1. Get learning

Once you know where you’re starting from, and where you’re going, it’s a matter of focusing on the gap in between. Your organisation’s data literacy program will require a unique mix of resources and tools to support it on its path. Fortunately, there’s an ever-growing domain of tools, templates and training modules available to learn from and implement.

Before organisations start considering how to leverage the data available to them though, there’s a critical question that needs to be asked — do we have the necessary skillset to derive meaningful insights from data and convert this knowledge into action? In most cases, the answer is no.

  1. Encourage a culture of curiosity

Encouraging curiosity is an important element of building data literacy. If the teams aren’t open to exploring data or being inquisitive, they’re unlikely to uncover insights that will help the business to innovate. A study by Harvard Business School found that 92% of employees credited curious people with bringing new ideas into teams and organisations and viewed curiosity as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation and high performance.

  1. Continually reassess

Ensure you schedule regular reviews to assess progress to date, measure incremental improvements, identify gaps and make changes to your data literacy program. Successful data literacy programs will not be a one-hit-wonder or ‘set and forget’ activity, these programs will adapt to the evolving needs of the organisation and technological advancements.

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