CEOs don’t understand data. Okay so they do understand it when it is presented in high-level spreadsheets, business dashboards, project plan schematics and flowcharts. But, generally speaking, the average CEO doesn’t understand too many of the 1s and zeros that go towards making the company’s stock of data the size and shape that it is.
Even if this is something of a generalization, the CEO of the (near) future may need to get a lot more fluent in ‘dataspeak’ given that we’re now all on the road to digital business and software-centric organization management.
The rationale behind this suggestion comes from the fact that we’re now seeing an increasing number of formalized work roles being created that have the word data in them. The average Chief Information Officer (CIO) is now increasingly supported by the Chief Data Officer (CDO), Chief Data Evangelist (CDE) and the Chief Data Literacy Officer (CDLO).
A new life skill: speak data
Head of data literacy at credit score company Experian is Paul Malyon. Arguing that the ability to be able to ‘speak data’ should be regarded as a kind of life skill like learning a language, being able to play a musical instrument or knowing how to make fire with our bare hands, Malyon says that data literacy has to start with the CEO. Only when the boss starts to ‘talk data’ and exhibit a level of data literacy can the business hope to develop a sense of data ownership and data prowess.
In practical terms, data literacy is much like any other form of literacy i.e. it expresses our human ability to understand data and interact with it in the same way as we might exhibit a proficiency in foundational human language competencies, or show computer coding literacy, civic & ethical literacy, financial numeracy or perhaps even social media literacy.
According to Experian’s 2020 Global Data Management Research Report, 84% of those surveyed see data literacy as a core competency that all employees need to have in the next five years. But Malyon says that (like language skills, like guitar playing skills, like financial numeracy skills) not everyone will be able to speak data at the same level, so a careful approach is needed.
“With the move to data literacy, more individuals across the organization will use data applications. Stakeholders need to consider the usability of these technologies as they move from a technically savvy user to a generally data-literate business colleague. Any application must be readily adaptable and suitable for adoption at every level of the business. The value of straightforward features like drag-and-drop capabilities simply cannot be overstated when trying to engage a wide audience in data-informed decision-making. As with most commercial data management applications, simplicity and ease-of-use that can be deployed within days – and without the need for the continual involvement of hard-pressed IT teams – will always win in offering speed and value over needless complexity,” said Experian’s Malyon.
Telling data stories
If the CEO of the (near) future, is going to learn to speak data, then she, he or they will need to be able to tell a better ‘data story’. Experian’s Malyon suggests that the way to do this is to use key metrics to determine the success of data initiatives, but to express these metrics in a business context.
“Relate new initiatives back to business success metrics. For example, if you improve the quality of an email address file, don’t talk about the number of deliverable email addresses. Instead, relate that back to the number of customers you could connect with, how you could provide a better experience for those customers, and the revenue that new access provided to the business,” said Malyon.
Good data parlance might start with the C-suite, but it also requires a groundswell of support and from the workers that make up the new data-literate organization. Talking data is not just for Christmas either, it’s a lifelong commitment, so data fluency (where it happens) should be celebrated.
“Data initiatives often fall short because a poor story is told around the success of data and what it means to the business. Very few organizations prove the Return on Investment (ROI) of data initiatives in the context of real business value, like customer satisfaction, revenue, operations excellence etc. Stakeholders need to be able to demonstrate value and ROI early on in a data or analytics project with any data initiative clearly tied back to the business strategy, performance indicators and critical outcomes,” said Experian’s Malyon.
Your résumé today might list your employment history, your fluency in French or Spanish, your piano skills level and your predilection for keeping tropical fish as a leisure pastime… and it might even include a note of which software packages you’re most comfortable with.
Your résumé tomorrow might also list your ability to speak data.