We’re living through the fourth industrial revolution (or “Industry 4.0”), a revolution that’s defined by wave upon wave of new technologies that combine the physical and digital worlds. You’ve no doubt noticed the plethora of “smart” physical devices – everything from watches to speakers to fridges – that are now connected to the internet. That’s Industry 4.0 in action. And it’s all underpinned by data. Data is the fuel that powers this new age of constant technological breakthroughs.
As such, data is now a prized business asset. This means data literacy – the basic ability to understand and use data – is a vital workplace skill for people in all sorts of roles. To put it another way, organizations big and small will need data-literate individuals who can confidently work with data.
In an average business context, data literacy generally means being able to:
- Access appropriate data – as in, knowing how and where to access the data needed to do your job and make informed decisions.
- Work with data – which may include creating data, gathering data, managing data to ensure it stays up to date, and of course, keeping data safe.
- Find meaning in the numbers – I’m not talking about being an expert data scientist. Rather, this is all about understanding what the data is telling you, typically by using business analytics tools to uncover insights from the data and identify business opportunities.
- Communicate those insights to others in the business – if you want to turn insights into action, you must be able to communicate key messages from the data to decision-makers within the business.
One study by Accenture highlights the stark reality of data literacy in the business world; while 75 percent of C-suite execs believe that all or most of their employees have the ability to work with data proficiently, only 21 percent of employees (across a variety of roles) were actually confident in their data literacy skills. Clearly, something is going wrong here.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways you as an individual can boost your data literacy skills. Here are eight steps to get you started:
1. First thing’s first, if your employer doesn’t have a data literacy training program (and really, these days, every business should), encourage them to create one. This article on why data literacy matters to every business will help you make a compelling case for organization-wide data literacy training.
2. If organizational training isn’t an option, there are also many online courses that will help you navigate data – covering everything from basic data skills to advanced machine learning skills. A good starting point is to check out education platforms like Coursera and Udemy, as well as the excellent learning resources from the Data Literacy Project. You’ll also find specific data literacy courses for different industries, such as healthcare (Coursera, for example, has a course on healthcare data literacy).
3. I’d also recommend taking a basic statistics course, as this will help you understand the foundations of data and analytics, and a basic data visualization course, as this will help you communicate insights from data to others in the business.
4. Meanwhile, get comfortable using data by delving into your company’s datasets (using whatever management dashboards or business intelligence tools your company has). Just dive in and have a go – for example, pulling up various different reports for different time periods. And if you don’t have access to data in your role, ask for it.
5. Find a data mentor. This doesn’t have to be a data professional (although if you can make friends with a data scientist within your organization, go for it!) – it could just be someone who is confident mining the company’s reporting systems and using numbers to back up their decision making. Someone who bases their actions on solid information, not just gut feelings.
6. If you’re wary of data or simply “not a numbers person,” try to focus on the benefits of using data in your role. For example, data can help you understand your target audience, spot gaps in the market, make better decisions, underpin your presentations with hard facts, and impress your bosses.
7. Blindly following data is never a good idea, so learn to question whatever data you’re working with. Good questions to ask include “Where has this data come from?” “Is this data valid?” and “Is the data biased?” There are many fascinating – and downright alarming – examples of bias in data and artificial intelligence, and I recommend reading up on the topic. This will help you question your company’s data and ensure that decisions are being made based on data that’s accurate and fair.
8. Finally, don’t let fear or hesitancy around data stop you from becoming data literate. I get that data makes many people nervous, but data literacy will be one of the most precious skills in the workplaces of the future, and burying your head in the sand isn’t going to change that. So find a way to take the fear out of data and treat it as a normal part of your working life. Some people like to do this by reading whatever they can get their hands on until the topic becomes normalized. Others prefer to just dive in and learn as they go. The important thing is to not let fear or hesitancy hold you back. It’s just data!