Data Literacy Is An Organizational Practice

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We don’t acquire the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic by ourselves or for ourselves alone. We largely read what others have written, and write for others to read. In this way, literacy and numeracy develop as social practices, reshaping societies quite as much as peoples’ lives. For individuals, neurological studies have found that verbal literacy changes the organization of the brain and economists show that literacy and numeracy strongly correlates with economic benefits.

Donald Farmer, Principal, TreeHive Strategy,

Donald will be delivering a keynote speech at our Enterprise Data and Business Intelligence & Analytics Conference Europe, 20-23 November 2017, on the topic The New Literacy: The Skills and Insights You Need in the Information Economy.

A version of this article was previously published here

However we can look at this more widely. For societies, we find a similar relationship to success. For the historian Deirde McCloskey, reading stands as one of the *four R’s that liberated the world for the great enrichment of the modern age. (The other Rs take in the Reformation, the Dutch Revolt, and the revolutions of England and France.) And today, although we all may hate to fill out our tax forms, literate societies can more easily exchange information about health, emergencies, the economy and government assistance. Indeed, modern societies so depend on literacy that many hold the competence as a human right.

As an aside, it is worth pointing out that “Generation Text” is perhaps more literate than ever. Teenagers today exchange more written words than their parents and grandparents ever did, even if the format is txt-speak. To be an illiterate teen today is a greater disadvantage than before.

I suggest that, in parallel with verbal literacy, data literacy emerges not merely as an individual ability. It’s a practice of organizations, transforming teams, firms and economies. In commerce, an understanding of data, its uses and interpretation serves employees well as individuals. You don’t need to be a data scientist to gain benefits from being competent with spreadsheets, graphics and simple data structures. Just as for societies, for the business as a whole data literacy boosts communication and participation, raising the quality of output and the use of new technologies.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Verbal literacy does not overhaul societies without effort. Four hundred years passed from the invention of the printing press to the industrial revolution. Nor should we expect data literacy to improve our businesses as a matter of course. The DataPop Alliance, a New York based non-profit promoting data awareness globally, begin their data literacy workshops with context and concepts, setting data-focussed work in a cultural perspective. Only then do the instructors introduce methods and tools – the interpretation of graphics and data.

Data literacy, then, is not just a skill to be hired for or trained in. It’s an organizational capability to be developed socially through telling and questioning, conversation and debate.

Donald Farmer is an internationally respected speaker and writer, with over 30 years’ experience in data management and analytics. His background is very diverse, having applied data analysis techniques in scenarios ranging from fish-farming to archaeology. He worked in award-winning start-ups in the UK and Iceland and spent 15 years at Microsoft and at Qlik leading teams designing and developing new enterprise capabilities in data integration, data mining, self-service analytics, and visualization. Donald is an advisor to globally diverse academic boards, government agencies, and investment funds and also advises several start-ups worldwide on data and innovation strategy.

Copyright Donald Farmer, Principal, TreeHive Strategy

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