Years ago, reading and writing skills were in the hands of a few specially trained practitioners. Today, literacy is considered essential to progress in the world.
The same is true of data literacy. We have evolved past the time when information is narrow enough to be maintained and managed within a specialized group. Instead, data literacy is a broad necessity, something every person will need in the data-driven world of the future.
So what is data literacy?
Put simply, data literacy is the ability to read and interpret data. A data literate person can look at data and turn it into information. They can derive meaning from the data collected and, in turn, use that meaning to make data-driven decisions.
Data on its own does not produce meaning. It’s neutral and disconnected from the contexts in which it might be used. It takes data literacy to move from a raw set of collected data to meaningful information that can be acted upon and put into practice through policies and business decisions.
Airbnb takes this opportunity seriously. Early on, they recognized that data-informed decision making was imperative, but they faced a conundrum.
Their culture is grounded on the belief that every employee should be empowered to make data-informed decisions yet most were experienced and educated in non-data related fields. Their data scientist count was finite so they needed to somehow scale this knowledge.
The challenge was answered by establishing a Data University.
Though slow and difficult to build, their University now boasts over 30 classes available to every employee across three tiers of complexity. Why would they go to this expense? The results speak for themselves:
- 50% jump in active use of their internal data platform
- all employees are making better decisions that are grounded in reality
- the subject matter experts across all lines of business (those with the questions) are empowered to ‘self-service’ the answers they need without the middleman which, in effect, dramatically reduces time to insights
- data science teams are freed up to focus on specialized activities
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Why are Airbnb’s learnings relevant to all companies?
How much inventory should you produce? What times of year are the best for advertising your service? When will shipping costs be at their lowest? How many employees should you hire next quarter?
These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered regularly. They’re incessant yet foundational to every enterprise, and answering them well can mean the difference between growth and loss, success and failure.
Every one of these questions can be answered (and answered more accurately) with the use of data. However, the answers hidden in the data can only be discerned if someone who has the expertise surrounding the particular question (production, advertising, logistics, HR) also has the data literacy to bring the answers forward.
To this end, like Airbnb, corporations need to recognize that data literacy is essential in every facet of their operation.
How can all employees be more data literate?
The good news is that data literacy can be learned. Most businesses have already invested heavily in getting the right experts in place across their operation, so now it’s a matter of helping those same employees make decisions autonomously by increasing their data literacy.
There are many practical ways to build an army of ‘citizen data scientists’:
Make intuitive tools and data accessible to everyone – the knowledge to extract insights from data only goes so far. Without the right tools to put this into practice, employees will revert to their old, intuition-based methods for making decisions.
Appoint a subset of data-skilled employees as educators/mentors – establish an in-house curriculum and platform where employees with specialized data skills can share what they know. As Airbnb discovered, this approach was a win for everyone – employees were empowered, the educators earned the respect and gratitude of their peers, and Airbnb realized their vision.
Use MOOCs or third-party e-learning platforms – much the same results can be achieved by outsourcing a data education at a fraction of the time and cost necessary to build a Data University. There are numerous low-cost options among the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) but, to get more structure, consistency, and relevance when building enterprise-wide data literacy, the added cost of a data e-learning platform, like Springboard, can be worth the investment.
There was a time in the recent past when understanding data was the task of a small, specialized group of IT professionals, but that time is over. Today, data is everyone’s job and the sooner that businesses understand and adapt to that reality, the faster they’ll capitalize on the opportunities waiting in the data.
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