Upping data literacy: The challenge for Australia and why it’s important

If we expect data to support every decision a person in a business makes, we need to equip that person with the skills and confidence to make data work for them

Data is a growing part of the business-as-usual landscape. It's both a science and art, and - if our data-driven decision making ambitions are to be realised - must become part of the organisation's fabric and workplace culture.

We see this occurring already in other technology domains like security where, in recent years, it's been rebranded as "everyone's responsibility". Security organisations are training individuals to improve security in their personal lives, hoping any mindset changes will translate across to the way the individual approaches business activities as well. It's a journey to change that appears to be working.

Data needs this same level of personalisation and focus.

If we expect data to support every decision a person in a business makes, we need to equip that person with the skills and confidence to make data work for them.

Fortunately, there is plenty in it already for individuals that care about data. 

Research from the Institute of Analytics Professionals of Australia claims that workers with high data literacy are able to enjoy beneficial financial rewards. Analytics professionals, including data scientists, earn a median salary of $130,000 compared to the average median salary of $84,000 and are employed across all industries.  

Deloitte Access Economics also claims (PDF) that Australians with big data skills will earn almost $20,000 more on average over the next four years than they do today.  

So, there's a clear financial incentive in making data part of your professional development. That's good, insofar as it's a personal motivator, busting a barrier that could otherwise jeopardise a business's attempts to integrate data into its culture.

But is personal financial gain enough to make data a core competency of every business professional, both current and future? It's unlikely, and in any event leaves too much to chance.

We are far more likely to achieve success from formal programs of study and development in what is becoming known as "data literacy".

Fostering data literacy to a level whereby employees in every department are empowered to use data to track performance, discover opportunities, and contribute new ideas is unlikely to be accomplished by individual companies, or even the government in isolation.

It is imperative that literacy is addressed through individual initiatives as well as collaborations by the government, educators as well as technology players.

What exactly is data literacy?

It's worth stepping back for a moment to properly define data literacy and to briefly chart its rise.

The Australian Public Service Commission - whose remit is to position Australian government workers for the future - defines data literacy as "the ability to identify, locate, interpret and evaluate information and then communicate key insights effectively."

"Whether in policy development, program management or service delivery, data skills are essential for all Australian Public Service (APS) employees to support evidence-based, informed decision making," the commission says.

Gartner analyst Carlie J. Idoine characterises data and information as a "second language". Most professionals do not “speak data” fluently and need to master this new capability, she and her colleagues told a Gartner analytics conference earlier this year.

Idoine predicts that by 2020, 80 percent of organisations "will initiate deliberate competency development in the field of data literacy.

"If there is no common language with which to interpret the various data sources in the organisation, there will be fundamental communication challenges when using data- and analytics-based solutions," she says.

Working together – the big picture

Fostering data literacy to a level where employees across an organisation are empowered to use data to track performance, discover opportunities, and contribute new ideas is unlikely to be accomplished by individual companies, or even the government in isolation. It is imperative that literacy is addressed through individual initiatives as well as collaborations by the government, educators as well as technology players.

Courses such as Swinburne University’s data analytics module, launched earlier this year in partnership with Tableau Software as part of its Master of Digital Management degree, are helping narrow the gap when it comes to data skills among Australian graduates, by raising awareness about the use of data analytics in everyday business scenarios.

The Australian government is taking a multi-faceted approach to upskilling the public sector workforce, including e-learning and self-service education; tertiary study and short courses; and a data literacy program targeting all its employees.

Its data literacy program "focuses on five core skills for using data in the APS: providing evidence for decision makers, undertaking research, using statistics, visualising the information, and telling the story."

Given the government is leading by example - and the propensity of the private sector to leverage off of public sector resources in domains like security, where adherence to the 'top four' and 'essential eight' mitigation strategies is a widely-accepted standard  - it could make sense to use the government's data literacy framework as a foundation for internal activities.

Software that puts the power of data at all employees’ fingertips could also play a role in smoothing the journey to data literacy.

An intuitive visual analytics platform like Tableau can be used to underpin a self-service data model which enables employees in large organisations to explore complex data sets for themselves, without the need for specialist qualifications or extensive training.

Ultimately, everyone needs to comprehend the language of data in order for Australia to thrive as an economic powerhouse. The ability to gather insights from data will enable Australian businesses to develop and extend its competitive advantage, innovate faster and ultimately succeed in the fast-paced world of today.  

Mac Bryla is APAC technology evangelist at Tableau Software.

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Tags data analyticsTableau Softwaredata

More about Access EconomicsAPACAustraliaAustralian Public Service CommissionDeloitteGartnerPublic Service CommissionSwinburne UniversityTableau Software

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