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Organizations that work with siloed, disparate information and systems struggle to compete with those using unified, integrated systems. But simply making data available to employees doesn't inherently translate to data-driven decision-making. In fact, only 21% of employees feel equipped to make the informed decisions that will lead to organizational success.

Of course, when employees don't feel comfortable working with data, they don't use it in their decision-making. And the absence of that data is costly: according to research from Accenture, data illiteracy results in companies losing 5 days of productivity per employee, every year. This equates to more than $100 billion in the US alone. To avoid this loss, businesses looking to tap the data analytics goldmine are increasingly building literacy initiatives that teach employees the skills they need to use data in their positions, while also emphasizing the widespread benefits that data literacy brings.

Building the data-literate workforce of the future requires companies to reorient their training and education processes to focus on the critical thinking and analytical skills that make for data fluency, and build a culture that rewards data use and data-driven decisions. The combination of digital work and the dominance of ecommerce has made it increasingly vital to ensure that employees have the right skills not simply to perform actions on particular software products, but to understand data and use it confidently in any environment.

One size does not fit all

Because every organization has unique processes, every data literacy program will look a bit different. One thing that successful data literacy efforts have in common, though, is having a CDO (Chief Digital Officer) and HR team that deeply understand the ways that using data can improve employee and company performance. And because the needs for data literacy will vary from team to team within an organization, the most successful programs offer tailored, contextual training that speaks specifically to the ways data literacy can improve employee experience and productivity in each role.

For example, customer service teams may need to assess data about CSATs, or factor in the relationship between support wait times and sentiment. But much of the data essential to their decisions is irrelevant to a marketing team trying to increase referral traffic, or sales managers looking to reduce funnel drop-off. While all of these teams need their data to come from a unified, reliably updated source, the type of data that's useful and the best way to use it will look radically different in different parts of the organization.

Fostering data literacy requires first identifying the kinds of information that each team or role needs to do its job effectively, and then empowering them with the skills relevant to that data. This also requires establishing a baseline expectation around digital literacy for each role, while continuing to build specialists in data integration, science, and modeling, as well as subject matter experts and analysts.

Technological empowerment

For employees to use data effectively, they need to have an accurate and reliable source of it. Siloed systems won't work; the technology must enable the creation of a unified, up-to-date source of truth. In practice, this means using tools that make data centralized and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reuseable). Software needs will change over time; the need for seamlessly integrated data will not.   

Because software needs change over time, it's important to distinguish between technical literacy and data literacy. While technical literacy is the ability to use a specific type of software or technology, data literacy or data fluency is the ability to analyze and use data in any environment. Unlike training for particular software, data fluency programs teach the fundamentals of data comprehension and analysis: the skills that employees need to make data-driven decisions.

Cultivating those skills throughout an organization requires a system of continuing education that both teaches and prioritizes data fluency. Senior executives must articulate the shared goals for the organization at large, while also defining the metrics that will determine success. And though these initiatives are (usually) spearheaded by CDOs, it's the responsibility of the entire C-suite to ensure each leader's own teams are using data to drive their decisions.

Changing the culture

Creating a data-centric culture means shifting organizational attitudes toward data and embracing its concrete relevance to every process. In addition to funding and actively supporting the technological and training implementations that this entails, senior leadership must also clearly define (and continually evolve) the goals and benefits of data literacy to the organization. This means explicitly tying data literacy to business outcomes and recognizing that data isn't a minor part of the enterprise; it is its most prized asset.

Driving data literacy at large also requires a culture that incentivizes innovation. To become effective data users, employees need to feel encouraged to experiment with bringing data into their decision-making. For example, if project proposals built around specific data points receive faster approval or larger budgets from leadership, middle managers and employees are likely to see value in data literacy and adopt it quickly.

And while failure will always be part of the experimental process, punishment for failure has a chilling effect on future experimentation. If the expected response to failure is discipline, employees will quickly stop taking risks and start manipulating the data they present to managers, seeking safety instead of growth. The organizations with the greatest capacity to tackle hard problems are those that are actively learning from their mistakes. Events and programs like hackathons and bug bounties, geared toward inviting innovative problem-solving, signal that experimentation and growth are more important to the organization than simply saving face.

The benefits of data literacy

Data is the currency of the digital world, and it only grows more important by the day. Where data analysis could once be left to a handful of employees, it now plays some part in virtually every job. And while this doesn't mean turning every employee into a data visualization expert, it does mean providing them with the information and skills they need to succeed.

Building widespread data literacy empowers employees to act when they encounter problems. Instead of being passive spectators, data-literate employees can understand why something happened and strategize ways to prevent it from re-occurring. Opportunities for this kind of informed response occur at every level of an organization, from strategic leaders to frontline staff who are being asked to make better, faster decisions when working with customers.

Widespread data literacy in an organization improves outcomes across the board, provided that organizations can move beyond just providing technology and software training. Enterprises looking to maximize the benefits of big data must build a culture that prioritizes collaborative learning and innovation in every seat, on any platform.

Zoho offers a suite of intelligent enterprise business software, including an award-winning CRM suite, the industry's only comprehensive analytics and BI platform, and a powerful low-code development ecosystem.