Teaching people to become fluent in data

Teaching people to become fluent in data

The transition to remote working, which has been accelerated by recent events, comes at a time when more and more of us have to make data-driven decisions. Yet few of us are comfortable working with data. To overcome that, we need to introduce technologies that make it simpler and more efficient to run data analysis remotely – as well as help our employees to develop the skills to use these tools more productively.

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The majority of people in today’s workforce have to make data-driven decisions, yet a global study by Accenture shows that for many it is also a stress, leading to a $10 billion (USD) loss in productivity. To get the full value from your data, you need to invest in the right digital tools and make it simpler for your people to use them.

The writing’s on the wall, or at least it’s in the infrastructure – the potential for modern businesses to collect data is enormous, but not enough companies are making proper use of this invaluable resource. Often that’s because workers simply can’t interpret the data that’s put in front of them. In their survey of 9,000 respondents, the Data Literacy Project found that 74% of employees felt uncomfortable working with data.

Effective use of data is now critically important for how we communicate internally, manage customer experiences, measure success and make decisions. These are some serious incentives to improve data literacy within the workforce.

And in fact, the anxiety that so many people feel about their inability to interpret data is even having direct effects on the mental health and productivity of employees. Most people said they often felt overwhelmed by the expectation of working with data, which led to procrastination, avoidance and even sick days due to stress. According to this survey, people feel ineffective and unsure of themselves. And it’s not just a case of lost opportunity, this is actively damaging business profits.

All this could be so easily solved if more companies invested in the data literacy of their employees. Unfortunately, 75% of C-suite level respondents over-estimated their employees’ confidence in working with data, and also their access to the tools they needed. This perception is not upheld at middle-management level, where only 50% shared those beliefs. Until finally at end-user level, only 21% felt confident in their data skills. There’s a problem here that the upper tiers of management don’t appear to recognise.

Compounding this effect, while some people develop anxiety around their inability to interpret the data, others simply develop an apathy. Rather than trying to learn new data skills, 48% of people preferred to act on their gut instinct rather than base their opinions on evidence. This behaviour is even more common in senior executives than it is at a functional level. And of course, even with the most intuitive gut-feel in the world, its reliability will never compare with data analysis. Unlike a gut feel, data provides quantifiable probabilities, measurements and unexpected correlations that can be used to guide decision making and inform business strategy. So why not take advantage of its potential?

Apparently, part of the problem is that the education system in most countries has not kept pace with the development of technology. In the UK, only 10% of respondents had spent a significant amount of time being taught about data in the workplace. In Singapore, this number rose to 14%. Whereas in India a massive 52% of respondents had focussed on the subject.

As the workforce matures, and technology continually develops, there’s a costly gap between the skills that are needed right now and the skills that are known. This means workers can either teach themselves, wait to be taught, or not learn at all. More businesses will have to start intervening and providing education for digital skills and data science. Failing to do so is simply waving goodbye to competitive advantage.

What will that look like in real terms? Lorin Whitt, a professor at the Wharton Business School, suggests that three key elements will define a data-driven business: improved data access, stronger data skills and a culture that prioritises the use of data for making business decisions.

By “democratising data” – taking its exclusive use away from a small, talented subset of employees and making sure that everyone within a business has the tools and access they need to contribute their own analyses – businesses will start to see real benefit. The Data Literacy Index has shown that a data-driven organisation enjoys increased corporate performance and a higher total enterprise value of between 3% and 5%.

This investment in data literacy needs to be an ongoing commitment, not simply a one-off event and it will need to be built on a solid foundation of reliable technology. If you want to start investing in these skills now, you’ll reap the reward of increased productivity and employee morale. Lenovo’s range of ThinkBooks, ThinkPads and workstations provide the processing power and resources you need to connect the different branches of your business, giving you the tools you need to start building insight using data analytics.