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Data Literacy: Developing an Essential Skill for Your Business and Employees

By Jim Molis

Published October 8, 2021 • 5 Min Read

If they want to grow, businesses can no longer limit data skills to specific positions or departments. Developing data literacy is increasingly important to employee success as well as their company’s.

From employee information to client data and company financials, businesses gather, analyze and act upon data more every day. “Data is the lifeblood of any organization in 2021,” says Andrea Wightman, senior director of strategy and communication at RBC’s Office of the CDO.

When employees have consistently used data to make decisions, companies are 1.5 times more likely to have grown revenue by more than 10 per cent over the past three years, according to a McKinsey & Company survey of the practices of leaders in data and analytics.

What is data literacy?

However, employees must understand data and its role in their organization before they use it in decisions. That is, employees must have data literacy. “Data literacy is the ability to read, understand — and argue — with data,” Wightman says.

Data literacy assures that your employees use data consistently, like by communicating in a shared terminology, says Ryan Martin, Senior Director, Office of the CDO. “Every role in the organization touches data and building the awareness and understanding of its capabilities is key,” he says.

Employees with data literacy know how to use data to the organization’s benefit because they grasp its importance beyond their role. Adding such value to their company also makes them more valuable to businesses that want such skills.

Reap the benefits of data literacy for your business and your employees by developing it across your company.

Data literacy drives better decision-making

“Decisions made based on data are more intelligent, strategic decisions rather than going with someone’s gut,” Wightman says. “Everything is motivated by the subjective, up-to-the-minute information in front of you.”

Information comes in many forms, like notes, emails, spreadsheets and reports, and every business has its own data. “Regardless of the size of the business, if you are enabling your employees to make data-driven decisions that’s a win. It’s about making the best possible decision using accurate, reusable data,” Martin says.

For instance, data literacy could help you uncover shopping trends and grow your business if you are a retailer. You could maximize your marketing dollars, identify viable store locations, streamline inventory or optimize operations, for example.

Developing data literacy instills confidence within your employees as well. “Understanding how to work with data helps future-proof their careers and gives them a level of confidence to open up a spreadsheet or presentation that they wouldn’t have before because they didn’t think they had the skills to understand it,” Wightman says.

Research shows even sophisticated companies often lack skills in data-driven problem-solving. Boosting your team’s data literacy can help develop skills like:

  • Identifying relevant data

  • Interpreting data

  • Questioning data

  • Explaining data

Developing data literacy in your company

RBC launched a free data-literacy program for its employees more than a year ago, allowing them to train online at their own pace. Other organizations have undertaken similar efforts, though their approach, like yours, may vary.

Some common strategies for building data literacy to consider include:

  • Prioritizing data literacy across the whole organization

  • Forming a shared terminology

  • Connecting data concepts to business scenarios

  • Incentivizing data-driven decision making

Emphasizing the benefit to employees is also key in developing a data literacy program. Employees will want to develop and apply data literacy if they know that doing so may improve their performance and advance their careers.

Gartner suggests starting by assessing data literacy at your business with questions like:

  • How many managers can build a business case based on reliable data?

  • How many managers can explain the output of their systems or processes?

  • How many people in your business can interpret fundamental statistical operations?

  • Who are the “native data speakers” in your company — like business analysts who can inform your data literacy program.

  • Who are the data “translators” who can help explain and eliminate communication barriers?

Measuring the success of your data literacy program

Quantifying the success of your data literacy program is also important. Companies that have implemented data literacy programs have noted benefits like increases in efficiency, Martin says. “Ad hoc requests that came into centralized data teams stopped coming in because other staff were now more self-sufficient or could understand the data they were looking at,” he says.

RBC has noticed increased confidence among the employees who have completed its program by asking them their comfort level with data both before and after their data literacy training. “They can read data, they can understand it, and they can use it in conversation,” Wightman says.

The amount of data companies have will continue to increase. And as the amount of data increases, data literacy will only become more important, Wightman says. Investing in your teams’ data literacy can help your employees to work smarter and grow your business. “The role of data in an organization is not going to be diminished in the near future. Data literacy is an investment you’re making in your employees for the future.”

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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