June 7, 2023

We are living in the fourth industrial revolution (or “Industry 4.0”), a revolution defined by a rolling wave of new technologies that combine the physical and digital worlds. You’ve no doubt noticed the plethora of “smart” physical devices – from watches to speakers to refrigerators – that are now connected to the internet. This is Industry 4.0 in action. And all of this is based on data. Data is the fuel that powers this new age of continuous technological innovation.

Therefore, data is now a valuable business asset. This means that data literacy – the basic ability to understand and use data – is a vital workplace skill for people in all kinds of roles. To put it another way, small and large organizations will need people who are data literate and can confidently work with data.

In an average business context, data literacy generally means being able to:

· Access to appropriate data – such as 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, collecting data, managing data to ensure it remains up-to-date and, of course, keeping data secure.

· Make sense of the numbers – I’m not talking about an expert data scientist. Rather, it’s all about understanding what the data is telling you, typically using business analytics tools to uncover insights from the data and identify business opportunities.

· Communicate these insights to others in the business – if you want to turn information into action, you need to be able to communicate key messages from the data to decision makers within the business.

An Accenture study highlights the dark reality of data literacy in the business world. while 75 percent of C-suite executives believe that all or most of their employees have the ability to work skillfully with data, only 21 percent of workers (in a variety of roles) were really confident in their data literacy skills. Obviously, something is wrong here.

The good news is that there are many ways that you as an individual can strengthen your data literacy skills. Here are eight steps to get you started:

1. First things first, if your employer doesn’t have a data literacy training program (and really, today, every business should), encourage them to create one. This article about why data literacy matters to every business will help you make a compelling case for data literacy training at the organization level.

2. If organizational training isn’t an option, there are also plenty of online courses to help you navigate data – covering everything from basic data skills to advanced machine learning skills. A good place to start is to check out training platforms like Coursera and Udemy, as well as the excellent learning resources from 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 would also recommend taking a basic statistics course as this will help you understand the fundamentals 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. In the meantime, get comfortable using data by digging into your company’s data sets (using whatever management dashboards or business intelligence tools your company has). Just dive in and get started – for example, listing several different reports for different time periods. And if you don’t have access to data in your role, request 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 in your organization, go for it!) – it could just be someone who’s confident mining the company’s reporting systems and using numbers to back up security in making their decisions. Someone who bases their actions on solid information, not just gut feelings.

6. If you’re wary of data or just “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, identify gaps in the market, make better decisions, support your presentations with hard facts, and impress your bosses.

7. Blindly following data is never a good idea, so learn to question the data you’re working with. Good questions to ask include “Where did this data come from?” “Is this data valid?” and “Is the data biased?” There are many fascinating – and downright disturbing – examples of bias in data and AI, and I recommend reading up on it. This will help you challenge your company’s data and ensure that decisions are made based on data that is accurate and fair.

8. Finally, don’t let fear or hesitation around data stop you from becoming data literate. I understand that data makes a lot of people nervous, but data literacy will be one of the most valuable 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 work life. Some people like to do this by reading as much as they can until it settles down. Others prefer to just dive in and learn as they go. The important thing is not to let fear or hesitation hold you back. It’s just data!

Read more about data literacy and other key skills in my new book, Future Skills: The 20 Skills and Abilities Everyone Needs to Succeed in a Digital World. Written for anyone who wants to ride the wave of digital transformation – rather than drown in it – the book explores why these vital future skills matter and how to develop them.

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