Big data: Four ways to make your projects run better

From finding people who can enthuse about the impact of insight to building analytical competency, here’s how you can help your business to become more confident with the data it holds.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Organisations continue to collect more data than ever before. While the IT department is often responsible for establishing how data is collected, it will be the task of a range of people from across the business to exploit this information. But tech analyst Gartner estimates 50% of organisations lack sufficient data literacy skills to make the most of the data they hold.

The analyst says the ability to "speak data" is becoming an integral aspect of most day-to-day jobs. So how can your organisation ensure its staff are confident to work with, analyse, and argue with data? Four tech chiefs provide their best-practice tips for boosting data literacy.

1. Find people who are passionate

Ian Cohen, chief product and information officer at ICS Group, recognises the importance of building data literacy in an organisation – but he also knows that you can't force it.

"I do not believe that you can make people do things they don't want to do," he says. "So you can't walk into an organisation on the Monday and say, 'This week we are going to increase the data literacy of all our teams, and we're going to run this programme and we're going to send everyone on these courses', because it doesn't work."

SEE: Big data management tips (free PDF)

What you typically find, says Cohen, is that the people who are interested in something will gravitate towards it – and the people who aren't, just move away. If you're on a mission to increase data literacy, you've got to first find the people who care about data and you've got to create environments where it's easy for them to do more of what they already love.

"It comes back to the development piece – it's much easier to develop people's strengths or get them to do more of what they're already good at rather than trying to fix their so-called weaknesses," he says. "So help people who are really passionate about something; indulge their passions and they'll be more passionate."

Cohen says this in turn will hopefully feed the curiosity of those who weren't immediately drawn to it on day one.

"Find the people who are naturally enthused, make them more enthusiastic and turn that enthusiasm into a contagion by making it visible, making it accessible and demonstrating the simplicity and the ease of the outcome. And then people come along with you," he says.

2. Build a community of like-minded people

Malcolm Lowe, head of IT at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), says the best way to boost data literacy is to bring like-minded people together, both inside and outside the organisation.

"We've created a community of interested parties internally, so they're all sharing hints and tips," he says. "We also liaise with a lot of other organisations across Greater Manchester that are on this journey as well."

As an example, Lowe says TfGM has got a good relationship with the Manchester Airports Group: "They're on a similar journey, but they're maybe two or three years ahead of us. So we're able to learn from them as well."

He also points to a lot of Manchester-focused groups. Lowe says his local area has a strong learning vibe when it comes to technology and digital, including educational events around getting the most out of Tableau, Power BI and data analytics in general. Those kinds of events, which took place in-person prior to lockdown, are now moving online – but the potential benefit is the same: education.

"So for me, boosting data literacy is all about building a community and networking. You can read documents and websites to your heart's content. But if you want to improve your data literacy, then it's important to find people who've got similar interests and goals and to then start learning from each other," says Lowe.

3. Ensure your data strategy is articulated and understood

Wincanton CIO Richard Gifford says he fully understands the benefits of building data literacy, both for his internal business and its external customers. However, getting people to understand the nature of that journey is far from straightforward.

If you want to make the most of data, says Gifford, then you also need a comprehensive data strategy that explains how you will make the most of the information you hold.

"It's not a quick process to take people on that journey and show them that there's an opportunity here to sell back to our customers, as well as making our internal operations more efficient from taking decisions based on data," he says.

SEE: Management tips: Four ways to deal with conflict in your team

Education programmes will help to build an awareness of the importance of the data strategy and, at the same time, will build your enterprise's data literacy. 

"I talk about us being data-driven and, in an organisation like ours, we've got a huge amount of data," he says. "If you build data literacy, you can then start to make propositions with that data, and that can be beneficial for customers. I think taking people on that journey on a simple level is good, and that gets them to understand the value of data."

4. Use classification to help people learn the value of data

Simon Liste, chief information technology officer at the Pension Protection Fund, is another tech chief who says the best way to boost digital literacy is to concentrate on education and awareness – and that process needs to spread across the entire organisation.

"Somebody that works within the business probably knows what they need from the data," he says. "So if the people in your organisation want to make the most of information, data and security shouldn't just be owned by IT – it's the responsibility of every individual."

Liste says classification of data is crucial if people want to learn how to use data effectively. That classification process includes behavioural concerns, such as how data is going to be used, distributed and dissected. He also refers to technical considerations, such as how data is going to be secured, visualised and shared, both internally and beyond the enterprise firewall.

"The classification is all about making sure that people know what they want to do with that data and how," he says. "I think that classification involves a collaboration between those that actually do your data analysis, which is a front-end business function, and those that run back-end functionality, such as developers and your architecture team that might be interrogating data. Data literacy, therefore, should be a focus for both IT and business people."

Editorial standards