Data literacy: Bringing your business up to speed

21 Mar 2022

Image: © Nuthawut/

InterSystems’ Redmond O’Leary discusses why it’s vital that data knowledge is not siloed and explains how to put a data literacy strategy in place.

Data has been a critical part of practically every business for some time now, but the rise of automation and acceleration of digital transformation has made it more important than ever for everyone to become more literate in digital technologies and data in particular.

While data literacy and data fluency are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to know the difference, and how much an employee needs to know depends on where they sit within the business.

Redmond O’Leary, sales manager for InterSystems Ireland, said data fluency suggests a mastery, which one would expect of data teams, whereas data literacy is about someone being able to communicate about data in relation to their role.

“Not everyone in a business needs to be fluent in data, but they do need to have at least a base-level understanding and be proficient enough so they can ask for what they want from the data and be part of the conversation,” he said.

‘Not everyone in a business needs to be fluent in data, but they do need to have at least a base-level understanding’

However, while the world is moving quickly into the digital transformation realm, O’Leary said legacy cultural issues can slow down progress in terms of data literacy. He noted that data and IT teams have traditionally been viewed as “a service element” of a business rather than a partner within it.

“Individual business leaders are expecting to be served data and insights, while there is often a disconnect within organisations, where each department is working towards their own, different goal,” he said.

“Collaboration between teams therefore is really important, so that everyone can use data to drive the business towards its key objectives, rather than everyone pulling in different directions.”

Implementing a data strategy

As part of a plan to boost data literacy, leaders need to address the current data literacy levels within their businesses, as the siloed culture of keeping data teams separate may mean that other departments have a poor understanding of data in general.

“Implementing a data strategy, which includes a data literacy element, is vital to overcome these issues. Part of this must be about empowering users to self-serve on live data by giving them the right tools to do that,” he said.

“This capability will take some of the reliance off data teams who can then focus on the bigger picture initiatives and will also help to set an expectation among business users around what data is actually available, which is an understanding many don’t currently have.”

O’Leary said assessing and identifying key players who can explain their systems and processes coherently will be important when building a training plan and will also help leaders identify skills gaps.

“Throughout this process, businesses should look out for the people who are data literate and can essentially become translators – bridging the gap between the data team and other business units. With the right encouragement and training, these translators could also act as champions for data fluency and advocate for it among their peers.”

O’Leary also recommended looking for areas of the business that are not making effective use of data and establishing whether or not a quick fix is possible.

“They can then look back at the business’s goals and focus on helping that department to improve its data literacy by getting those individuals involved in a proof-of-concept, for instance, to see how they can use data to meet those goals,” he said.

“Making sure that this process is fun, creative and engaging will ensure it’s a positive experience and get individuals to really take an interest and retain the information. The more hands-on and practical the programme is, the better. They can then take the lessons learned from that exercise forward into the next data initiative they undertake and use it to develop a programme that can then be rolled out across the rest of the business.”

While it’s vital that business leaders do everything they can to help employees achieve the right level of digital literacy, individual employees can work on their own data skills too. Employees should look beyond their role and try to understand what the business as a whole is trying to achieve and the role that data plays within that.

O’Leary said a good starting point is to review their company’s annual report to ensure they understand the data within it.

“There are also things they could do from a communication skills perspective, which is a big part of data fluency. Thinking outside of the box and doing a public speaking or toastmaster’s course can be of real benefit to help develop those communications skills,” he said.

“They may also want to consider signing up to a STEM programme or looking at what resources are available in their local community as we’re seeing more spaces popping up to teach people about technology but in a fun and interactive way.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic