The majority of organisations now recognise the importance of data as a driver of commercial strategy.

As Econsultancy’s 2019 Digital Trends report states: “data analytics is no longer a preserve of pioneers, or those at the ‘bleeding edge.” Rather, it is a perceived priority, with the majority of organisations citing ‘data-driven marketing that focuses on the individual’ as the single most exciting opportunity of 2019.

Despite this widespread recognition, however, there are still significant barriers to unlocking data; skills (or a lack thereof) remains one of the biggest. According to Econsultancy’s ‘Skills of the Modern Marketer’ report, 13% or less of respondents rate themselves an ‘expert’ in strategy, data and measurement, and brand management.

This has wide-ranging ramifications: Gartner predicts that 50% of organisations will lack sufficient AI and data literacy skills to achieve business value in 2020. Essentially, this means that companies with poor data literacy will lag behind, and find themselves unable to achieve competitive growth.

The Data Literacy Index also suggests that organisational challenges with data exist due to a persistent gap between how organisations perceive its importance, and their appreciation of data literacy. So, what exactly does “data literacy” consist of, why is it important, and which organisations have made it a priority?

What is data literacy?

Data literacy is defined by Gartner 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.”

This sounds pretty complex, but in short, data literacy is the ability to derive meaningful information from data, and to apply it in a business context. In order to exist in the first place, it also requires a culture that values data and its role in decision-making.

Gartner goes on to suggest that data literacy is not an isolated concept, but “an underlying component of digital dexterity”. This means that data skills play a vital part in a wider variety of digital roles, impacting an employee’s ability and willingness to use both existing and emerging technology.

data analysis

Why is data literacy important?

In 2018, a number of global organisations – included Qlik and the Chartered Institute of Marketing – came together to launch the Data Literacy Project. Its aim is to promote the importance of data literacy and its part in business success (alongside learning projects to enable it).

Research commissioned by the Data Literacy Project found that organisations with higher levels of data literacy (ranking in the top third of the Data Literacy Index) are associated with 3 to 5% greater enterprise value. Based on the average organisation size in the study ($10.7bn enterprise value), this means that organisations that have higher corporate data literacy scores could see their enterprise value increase by anywhere from $320 to $534 million.

Naturally, a number of organisations are now taking note of statistics like this, and choosing to invest in their own data literacy programs to drive learning.

Who is investing in data literacy?

Marks and Spencer is one of the biggest companies (and the first UK retailer) to invest in its own data academy. In 2018, it launched the M&S Data Academy in partnership with Decoded, with the aim of bolstering its long-term digital transformation plans.

Upon launch, M&S stated that 1,000 employees from every part of the business would be upskilled within 18 months. They’d be taught a new raft of data-driven skills, and given the opportunity to enrol in an 18-month long data science program. At the end of their training, successful employees would receive a data analytics qualification accredited by the British Computing Society.

Alongside this, M&S created the Data Leadership programme for senior executives; an initiative designed to help them learn about technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Banking is another industry that seems to be shining a light on data literacy. At the start of 2019, NatWest announced the launch of its own data academy, which will open up to all 70,000 of its employees in due course. NatWest’s academy is also part of its wider mission to become more customer-centric, with training geared around giving staff what they need in order to offer more tailored products and services to customers.

NatWest also says that the academy exists to complement the bank’s data innovation research unit, which opened in Edinburgh University in late 2018.

Elsewhere, we’re seeing brands take a more pre-emptive approach to data literacy by launching projects to ensure that new or potential recruits have the skills they need. Siemens is one example of this: the company recently launched The Digital Academy in partnership with 17 leading universities.

The programme gives selected students a 12-week paid summer placement each year, plus £3,000 in sponsorship every year from their 2nd year of study. In return, students receive experience and training in data science and engineering, and the option to join the Siemens’ Graduate Scheme once they have completed their degree. 

Another organisation taking this approach is Sainsbury’s, which has been partnering with universities to promote the importance of data literacy, and the various data-driven roles that would be open to students as a result. As Computer Weekly reports, this strategy allows Sainsbury’s to effectively “grow in-house” and foster talent from the ground up.

Overall, it’s promising to see organisations working to break down the barriers that are preventing them from become truly data-driven. Encouragingly, Gartner has also predicted that by 2020, 80% of organisations will initiate deliberate competency development in the field of data literacy, acknowledging their extreme deficiency.”

So, while there’s a long way to go before data literacy is part of the average employee’s skillset, the recognition that it is needed – and the fact that organisations are putting programmes in place – is surely the first step to creating a data-savvy future workforce.