How can you create the right environment for data literacy?
Is your business a learning organisation?
Many successful companies have invested in becoming a learning focused organisation. Why? Research shows that organisations that prioritise learning stay ahead of their competitors, understand and maximise the use of technology, keep up with changes in customer behaviour and develop efficient competitive strategies.
Adopting the data driven, blameless culture synonymous with a learning organisation has been shown to increase job satisfaction for employees. This is because the ongoing evaluation and feedback that accompanies learning offers insights that help improve personal development and team performance.
In a learning organisations employees are encouraged to learn as part of a more innovative environment which is capable of adapting rapidly. Consequently, they think insightfully about complex problems, take coordinated action and improve decision making.
Data literacy is the next challenge for the learning organisation
From finance to local government, data and data-powered technologies are transforming the way we live and work. Which is why data literacy has become critical to organisational performance. Organisations that deploy company wide data literacy programmes consistently perform in the top 20% of organisations globally.
However there are challenges with many data skills and literacy programmes. A particular issue is that many data skills programmes focus on data technology, attempting to train everyone from leaders to frontline employees in complex data science concepts and tools. These programmes neglect the mindsets and skills that allow data technologies to deliver value whilst avoiding harmful impacts. According to Mckinsey when a data project fails it’s rarely due to issues with the technology. In more than 50% of cases it’s due to a lack of focus on the changing mindsets and skills across a company. Problems with technology account for only 8% of failed projects.
Which is why an increasing number of data literacy and skills programmes take a more holistic, company wide view of skills. Focusing as much on ethics as AI and training people on policy as well programming. Tech skills remain important but for data to have an impact, in the words of one of our client in the energy sector, every employee needs to “speak data”. In other words being able to understand, communicate and contribute in the data roles and responsibilities they have.
Adapting the principles of the learning organisation to data literacy
Before embarking on a data literacy journey for your business, it is crucial to emphasise that it has to be adopted by the whole organisation. Clarity and uniformity of message is key in ensuring consistent, measurable outcomes. It is common for managers to be unclear on what a learning organisation involves, so there has to be a plan which is actionable and easy to apply.
Garvin, Edmondson and Gino (2008) set out the three broad building blocks required for organisational learning and adaptability: a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes and practices and leadership that reinforces learning.
- A supportive learning environment is defined by four essential characteristics. Psychological safety: making mistakes without fear of consequence and learning from them as a collective; appreciation of differences: recognising the value in competing functional outlooks; openness to new ideas: encouraging risk taking to craft novel approaches and lastly time for reflection: allowing for pause and thoughtful reviews. For data literacy this kind of approach will cultivate the rich, teachable opportunities that drive innovation and prevent companies and individuals repeating their same old practices in the absence of learning.
- Concrete learning processes and practices emphasise the need for rigorous information practises partnered with a comprehensive education and training program to develop both new and established employees. It is vital to generate and share data and knowledge laterally and vertically throughout the business, in systematic and clearly defined ways, to ensure essential information moves quickly and efficiently to those who need it. This transfer needs to be supported by infrastructure, policy, processes and guidance.
- Transformational data leadership skills set the tone in a learning organisation for data. This entails leading by example then encouraging innovation and learning activities. There has to be a genuine openness to risk taking and commitment to new ways of working with data: leaders might advocate learning through failure but they often impede this with their bias towards success. Although most leaders know that assessment is key in understanding performance they don’t always insist on collating and analysing measurable information. ‘Data-based post-mortems of projects’, however successful, are integral to continuous learning, strongly advocated by the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios as ‘data can show things in a neutral way’. This stimulates discussions and challenges assumptions that arise from personal impressions. These reflections facilitate knowledge transfer by managers and demonstrate the value of data and the value of the data-oriented contributions made by employees.
Measure, iterate and optimise
An effective learning organisation allows time for review. To be certain that it is performing well, a business should use diagnostic tools which can indicate the progress and impact of specific programmes, such as data literacy.
Using actual feedback from participants and their managers, alongside measures of impact should allow leaders to assess the effectiveness of their programmes and identify measures that will improve performance.
For data literacy programmes perhaps the most important indicators will be around changes to mindsets and ways of working. Are decisions being made with data? Is data quality improving? And can you show that people across your business understand the contribution they make to effective use of data?
At heart data literacy is about applying specific skills in a way that creates value for an individual or an organisation. Which is why learning organisations will measure both – not just whether someone has a skill, but, whether they are using that skill in valuable ways.