Young woman reading a book on her bed, illustrating data literacy in the digital workplace

Knowing how to capture, analyse, and share information effectively is essential if you want to make the most of today's digital workplace solutions. The question is, how do you build data literacy in your business?

What is data literacy?

Gartner defines data literacy as the ability to read, write and communicate data in context, including an understanding of data sources and constructs, analytical methods and techniques applied — and the ability to describe the use case, application and resulting value.”

Breaking down barriers

One of the biggest hurdles to data literacy is a lack of confidence. Most people think that data analytics and business intelligence (BI) is a complicated discipline that requires a degree in computer science to do properly.

This simply isn’t true. You can do it. You just need to change the way you think about and approach your data. Let's take Excel as an example. Basically, there are 3 kinds of people that use Excel:

1. The enthusiastic amateur

People who use Excel like a notepad with a built-in calculator. They arbitrarily enter data into their spreadsheets with no rhyme or reason. There’s no logic guiding their actions so, when they share it with someone else, it’s almost impossible to understand.

2. The traditional user

Most people fall into this category. Traditional users are comfortable using formulas to tabulate data in Excel and know how to build spreadsheets that follow a clear, logical structure.

3. The “power user”

Power users know what they’re doing. They use Excel’s advanced capabilities and business logic to create dynamic workbooks that connect directly to APIs and adjacent data sets. Instead of static reports, they have access to live views.

Overcoming the mental block

It might not seem like it, but the only difference between the people in the second and third categories is their approach. It isn’t inherently any more complex. Whenever you create a formula in Excel, you instruct the computer to perform a specific operation. In other words, you’re taking your first steps into computer programming—without even realising it.

If you can use Excel formulas, then you can use digital workplace solutions like Power Query and Microsoft Power BI. They do the same basic things. They’re cost-effective, accessible business intelligence platforms that enable you to extract valuable insights from your data, without any coding. They aren’t the arcane, specialist tools you might think. Once you overcome this mental block, you can start using them to their full potential.

4 tips for improved data literacy

1. Democratise your data

Democratisation is a perpetual trend in technology. As new tools emerge, once complex and specialist fields become accessible to a wider audience. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) illustrate this perfectly.

Once upon a time, you had to spend four years at university before you could use GIS software effectively. But these days, tools like QGIS have made it so that anyone off the street can visualise and map GIS data with minimal effort. Data analytics and BI are heading in the same direction.

Businesses now see the value in breaking data out of silos. Increasingly, they use tools like Power BI to centralise their data, making it accessible to a wider audience and increasing the number of potential applications. This approach also allows them to establish a single source of truth. There are no fragmented opinions or inconsistencies to muddy the waters—everyone has access to the latest insights and most up-to-date view.

2. Train your people

To become truly data literate, employees must be comfortable using BI and analytics platforms. They must be familiar with the various functions at their disposal and what this enables them to do with their data. Training is central to these efforts.

This means doing more than 30 Excel crash courses. In our experience, people respond better when they're able to experiment with and test the limits of these digital workplace tools. Our group workshop, Dashboard in a Day, is a prime example.

Over the course of the day, we take people who’ve never used BI tools before and help them develop a dynamic report based on live sample data. This comes from a range of sources including the BBC Sport website and (my personal favourite) Pokeapi.

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3. Create a business charter

Before you start making wholesale changes to your data strategy, it’s important to create a framework that carefully outlines your approach to data. Think of it as a business charter that defines the conditions under which your team will/won’t/do/don’t/can/can’t do things. For example, “if you recreate the same report more than 6 times a year, you WILL automate it”. It’s important to encourage your employees to explore and experiment with different ways of using data to solve problems. But you need boundaries. People work best when they have something to guide them.

This must come from the top down and so a key part of this is identifying who among your leadership team is responsible for new data initiatives. Who’s accountable for driving that change? When we take on a new client, we often ask “who’s your CIO?” If you can’t answer that, it’s impossible to coordinate your vision.

4. Replace static pdfs with dynamic, live data views

Traditional reports are dull. They’re static, offering only a narrow view of your data. Live, digital reports allow you to drill down through the various layers and explore your data in greater depth. You can sort and slice data, analyse things from different angles, and ask questions around it to uncover hidden relationships and insights.

So, why aren’t more businesses taking this approach?

It’s partly a cultural problem. If you’ve only ever used Excel’s basic functions, you probably aren’t aware of its more advanced features. In that case, an analytics platform like Power BI, Tableau, or Qlik Sense, may seem rather daunting. But these workplace tools are just as accessible and cost-effective as Excel. Power BI Pro is only $10 per user/month and even offers a free trial.

The importance of data literacy in the modern workplace

Data literacy isn’t only about helping your employees make the most of the information at their disposal. Gartner ranks poor data literacy as one of the biggest internal roadblocks facing companies today. And, as businesses continue to rely on data to generate actionable insights, you run the risk of inhibiting your long-term growth if you don’t bring your staff up to speed.

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