How to drive data strategy

Talking data: How to drive data literacy within your senior leadership


Data expert, Paul Laughlin, explores the importance of data literacy within the customer experience profession, and discusses effective ways to educate and train staff to be able to understand and "talk data".

15th Dec 2021

A regular topic of conversation with the data leaders I know has been setting up data literacy education for their senior leaders. It seems to be coming up in my chats with clients, podcast guests, and friends more often than ever.

However, one of the challenges that I hear leaders struggle with is the vagueness of this term. Most agree that their goal is to ensure that senior leaders can “talk data“, especially with their own teams. But beyond that, the scope can vary hugely. Some become technical and seek to explain trendy concepts within data science and artificial intelligence (AI). Others focus on analytical thinking and making the language used for data concepts more accessible.

Having spent many years training technical teams in the softer skills they need — from data management to data science — I can see the need for such education. Analytical teams can up-skill their analysts and even create translator/business partner roles, but there is still a need for business leaders to be able to meet them halfway. Data-driven decision making also requires better quality thinking by business leaders, as well as the ability for them to understand and critique what is presented.

Getting clear on the scope of your challenge

So, in this post, I will share my thoughts on how leaders can tackle the challenge of data literacy. Topics covered will include clarifying the scope of the issue, keeping it relevant, and discussing options for delivery. Over the coming weeks I will also invite our guest bloggers to chip in with their perspective, and perhaps provide some ‘war stories‘ with examples of techniques that they have used in practice. If you are a data leader with experience of implementing a data literacy training programme for your leaders, please get in touch I’d love to share your learned experience too.

Let’s turn first to the challenge of scoping what you will cover. Here, your primary guide should be the needs of your organisation and your senior leaders. Some more technical or scientific businesses can take a level of statistical thinking and numeracy for granted. Many cannot. Equally, some senior leaders will be experienced at logical thinking and already applying the potential of other technical teams (like engineering or actuarial). So, there is rarely a simple one size fits all solution.

That said, I have seen value in considering the benefits of covering the following topics:

  • Relevance for business leaders (bringing to life how better commercial decision making requires data literacy).
  • Explaining common terms used in data & analytics (sometimes including a short glossary ‘cheatsheet’).
  • Questions to ask about data sourcing (how captured, regulation, consent, quality, meaning, sources).
  • Basic statistical thinking (distributions, outliers, means, rates, ratios, correlation, causation).
  • Graphicacy (how to read basic charts, potential pitfalls, questions to askbenefits of other chart types).
  • Critical thinking (clarity of language, observation, inference, problem solving, feedback loops).
  • The art of the possible (current capabilities, potential of data/analytics/data science & needs in business).
  • How to get the best out of analysts (briefing, listening, collaborating, not-solutionising, navigating politics).

Engaging your executives throughout the programme

As well as the challenge of designing such an education programme — pared down to what works for your context — I also hear frustration at lack of commitment. By this I mean executives either being put off from the start or not completing the education provided. Senior leaders can both want all the above to be covered (and more), but also then baulk at the time commitment expected of them.

Part of the solution can be the choice of media or learning style, which I’ll cover later. But I first suggest you keep in mind relevance. Don’t try to sell a generic data literacy training programme to your directors. It can be the senior executive equivalent of trying to get your kids to eat their greens. After you have identified what they need to know, pause and consider how to make it more attractive to them. Often this is about thinking what’s in it for them?

Such a focus on relevance should guide not only content design but also the language you use & how you pitch this. What exactly works best will vary from organisation to organisation. But here are a few ideas I have seen help data leaders:

  • Tie into language used in your business strategy (how we become a data driven business).
  • Latch on to a top issue for the business (the skills you need to solve our customer retention challenge).
  • Create tailored versions for different silos in your business (data skills for modern marketers), even tied into professional body requirements (like CIM qualifications).

Flexing your delivery style & challenging your leaders

As a trainer (or educator) I believe in the value of face-to-face training. Ideally in person, but at least live via video channels, so that delegates can ask questions. Interactive group exercises and the informal sharing that happens in breaks can all be powerful aids to embedding learning. But I also recognise the need for flexibility.

One of the first things to plan is duration and how to break down the content. Here, as ever for educators, you need to be both realistic and challenging. Although it makes sense to adapt the choice of media used & the modularity of your delivery to maximise engagement, you also need to champion effectiveness. Don’t short change the reputation of your work by compromising to what is most convenient. Senior leaders should be persuaded that this matters enough for them to put their time where their mouth is.

That said, I have seen hybrid models work well. These breakdown what is often a 6-12 month programme into bite-sized modules delivered through a variety of media. Popular options include:

  • Lunch & learn sessions (1 hour online or in-person, covering one of the topics above).
  • Homework/Workbooks (material produced for self-study, even certification).
  • Workshops (combining one of the topics with application to a business challenge).
  • Half-day training (breaking down whole programme into weekly or fortnightly online events).
  • Recorded video training (self study, with the risk of passive watching if not careful).
  • Content on key topics using a variety of media (internal podcasts/radio/blogs/articles in internal comms).
  • Speaking at internal events (regular slots at key meetings or business conferences).
  • Accredited training (study together with a project demonstrating application, for formal certification).

Which works for you? How do you educate on data literacy?

I hope my initial thoughts above have helped those who are just starting to plan their approach. Did it help you? What do you plan to do? Have you made progress already? If so, what worked for your business?

Given the buzz around this topic, I don’t think it is going away anytime soon. I’ve been in discussions with a couple of professional bodies and they too are seeing the need to educate senior professionals in data. For that reason, I encourage you to not walk past this topic. Don’t take all the responsibility on your data and analytics team to be able to “talk commercially: that is needed, but so is the education of executives to “talk & think data“.

Let’s improve data-based decision making in our businesses by working on both fronts. I look forward to hearing your views on what will help.

This article was adapted from a piece that originally appreared on the Customer Insight Leader blog



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