How to improve data literacy

How to Improve Data Literacy as a Leader

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James Bell

General Manager, Robinson Ryan

A common situation facing organisations is that data literacy, digital literacy and digital transformation are conflated. Each is a very specific process used to undertake organisational improvement and achieve different end goals. What’s the difference between data literacy and digital literacy? Digital transformation and digitisation? Or perhaps more fundamentally, data and analytics? And why is data literacy a leadership requirement? Building data literacy ensures that you invest in the skills, development and capability of your people, teams and organisations. And it’s not a one-off training session, but rather a journey of change and improvement.

I’m a firm believer in the importance in getting the language right. Leaders can help build better performing teams, and part of this is making sure that people mean the same thing when they use the same words. Think ‘customer-centric’ and ‘data-driven’; these catch-alls are thrown around all the time. Do they mean the same thing for people in your organisation? Are you all aligned around the exact same things? Ask people across multiple teams to get a quick back-of-the-envelope snapshot of where your language and cultural alignment is truly at.

According to Goleman, leadership in organisations is increasingly an EQ (emotional intelligence) driven skill – the ability for:

  • Self awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills (communication)
Why should leaders focus on improving data literacy?

So why should you as a leader focus on strengthening data literacy? And what does data literacy mean to your organisation and its strategic advantage?

Building data literacy in your organisation should be approached as a leadership requirement. It is no small task, requiring leaders to lead, respond and communicate to support people and teams to improve personal and business skills and ways of work. This puts it firmly in the realm of leadership. Here are some fundamental aspects to consider and become fluent in as a leader. 

What is data literacy?

Data literacy is a fundamental concept that involves specific sets of skills to create, manage and use data properly within organisations. It’s also the beginning of a journey of understanding that there is a formal discipline that underpins proper data management, and that this includes a formal language and application of concepts in real world contexts. Most organisations, particularly those with an immediate action bias, jump straight to making ‘data-driven decisions’. As a former well-travelled road warrior, this is akin to expecting that I can go from my basic conversational Duolingo classes to writing a brilliant PhD on data management in Japanese.

Data literacy encompasses a broad spectrum of skills and knowledge. It’s fair to say there’s a sizable skill, attitude and desire gap between being able to read and understand your average newspaper article and being an avid reader of Dostovesky’s ‘The Brother’s Karamazov’ or Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. As with any skill mastery metric, the gap to grow into and beyond adept and towards mastery is often a long journey. When examining how to improve data literacy in your organisation, it is best to view it as an ongoing journey. How can you get all of your people operating from the starting line, using a common language and building a strong data culture?

The data literacy journey

Creating a common understanding and starting point is key to success, just as much as creating a desired future state and why the journey to achieve that state is important. Digital literacy is the common skillset required to use digital technology, what technology to use and how to use. Data literacy is the contextual application: I know where the data came from , I can trust the data, I know why the data is presented this way, I’m confident the data is well-managed, I know how to use this data to create additional value and I understand for whom is the data is relevant. In a digital-data pyramid of mastery:

Leaders can create conditions where people, teams and the broader organisation are set up to succeed. Investing in developing your capabilities in technology, digital and data are just as important to your leadership credentials as are having highly developed EQ, communication and management skills. If technology is the ‘tool’ which your people will use to create the outputs of their work, then then the actual output is ‘data’. Data literacy, like all literacy, is not a fixed point but a continuum. As a leader, how can you develop your people and move them from being simply data literate to being data adept?

If you’re questioning how to improve data literacy in your organisation, Robinson Ryan can help. Our consulting services cover data management maturity assessments, health checks and risk assessments, while our training services lift data literacy and understanding. We are one of only four global Registered Education Providers with DAMA International.


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