From Data Traveler to Data Fluent

Written by Steve Tadeo

Have you ever traveled to another country, one where you didn’t speak the local language? It can be stressful, uncomfortable, and perhaps at times, a bit scary. Let’s say that the travel is by plane, and can assume the departure was acceptable. Now we can focus on the arrival airport experience. Most likely, the plan is for someone to meet you at the airport when you arrive. All you must do is clear customs and get your baggage, and you are good. Most international airports have bilingual employees to help travelers, and for the most part, you can follow the crowd, and you will be fine. While it might be challenging, and for a brief period, you’ll feel uncomfortable, but you are going to get through this.  

Ok, let’s add a twist; this happened to me. I had to change planes in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My Portuguese is limited to “Bon Dia.” Good Morning was all I had to work with. I landed in Sao Paulo fine, but my connecting flight was local and running late. The departure time was first announced to be one hour late, then 90 minutes late, and then all information on the message board went utterly blank! Nothing. I entered the scary zone. My flight was beyond delayed; it was gone!  

Soon, another passenger spotted me and sensed that I was a “traveler” and explained to me as best she could (I know she didn’t say “Good Morning”) that the pilots were stuck in Sao Paulo traffic, and it was unclear when that flight would depart. Everything eventually worked out, and the airline assigned a new flight crew and the plane left with a short delay, and I got to my destination about 45 minutes late. It all worked out, but it wasn’t clear sailing the whole trip. Hold that thought for a bit.

Let’s stay with that uncomfortable travel feeling of not communicating and fully comprehending our surroundings but switching the setting. What if the travel we are talking about is not international but a career journey? Many employees travel from a non-data-centric world to a digitally transformed, data overloaded, speed of light world. Today’s world has been changing and continues to change at an accelerated, practically exponential rate, and so much of this change is data-driven. 

The Business World is rapidly changing.

Think back to the world before 1990. Personal computers and the internet were a rarity only for the privileged few in academia and research. The internet of things, smartphones, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Netflix, machine learning, and artificial intelligence were non-existent. 1990 was a completely different world from the world of today, and today is not over yet! These changes impact all aspects of our lives, but let’s focus on the business environment. The business world has changed, and the language of business today is data. Being data literate is a fundamental skill in this new data-driven world.  

Data Literacy is not binary.

So, what is this “Data Literacy?”.  Data literacy is the ability to read, work with, analyze and communicate data in context. Data literacy is the business language that helps us ask the right questions of data, make decisions, and share those decisions with the credibility of data. Keep in mind that Data Literacy is not binary but rather is on a continuum. Everyone has some basic data skills, and others are pretty adept at viewing and understanding, and incorporating data into their daily practices. But as the business data world evolves, these basic data literacy skills also continue to grow. A few years back, what was once considered advanced may be basic understanding in today’s business world. Remember back when Microsoft Excel first hit the market? Excel was for the techies or the Geek squad. Today MS Excel is used to varying degrees by everyone.  

Being Data Literate is being comfortable asking questions.

What does it look like if you are data literate?  First and foremost, data literacy is about being comfortable asking questions about data. When reviewing a data set or a data visualization, you would begin with some questions about the data and how it was collected, processed, and presented. This can lead to asking about the sample size. Did the sample accurately reflect the demographics of the target audience? Did the data collection method introduce a bias that affected the results?

Being data literate means having a comfort level with data to question, challenge, and not simply accept. It’s about being curious and using data to confirm and validate and perhaps generate more questions. The goal is to use the advantage of data insights to help make decisions. Your questions may uncover additional insights and information, which may, in turn, lead to discoveries. Data literacy will for sure engage your divergent and convergent thought processing.  

Tips to get started on your data journey.

How can you get started or continue your learning journey? As with any skill, there is a time investment before seeing the benefit, so understand that you don’t learn a new language overnight. So, while you may not be fluent in the language of data, give yourself credit for being conversational. It may take some time, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s about learning and then practicing what you have learned and repeating this process with new skills and application opportunities.

  • The learning part is easy.  In this internet world, access to quality content is just a couple of clicks away. Open your browser and “Google” data literacy, and you will find lots of sources. Two that I would recommend are data literacy learning offers from Qlik and Tableau. Both are leaders in the Business Intelligence space and are doing great work providing learning opportunities to anyone interested in learning and willing to commit time to develop their knowledge and skills. These are free offers. A collective thanks to Qlik and Tableau for their contribution.  
  • Subscribe to one of the many Data Literacy Blogs.  Data literacy is like any other language skill. Your data fluency will multiply once you have a strong foundation.  
  • Recognize that not everyone starts from the same level of knowledge. Everyone’s journey will be different. Recognize this upfront. Be ready for an ongoing challenge because business data is a moving target, unlike the local language you want to master. You need to learn to data speak and keep learning and applying and learning and applying. 
  • Apply what you have learned. I want to emphasize that learning, of course, is critical, but the application of what you have learned is where the benefits are achieved. If learning is an investment, the application is where you see the return on that investment.   
  • Be curious and fearless. The next time you are required to make a decision, start with a brainstorming exercise of questioning. What is the business problem? How will I know if I have solved the problem? What is the measure of success? What data would I need? What are the sources of that data? Can additional data reveal a greater understanding? This questioning effort will take some time, but it’s undoubtedly better to make a quality first decision than correct one that could have been improved from the start.  
  • Take a fresh look at past decisions. This is a great way to build your application skills, and you benefit from knowing what happened. What questions should you have asked that could have improved your decision or provided a new perspective? Did you let your experience create a bias in your decision? Did you make a data-driven decision or an intuitive or experience-based decision?
  • You don’t have to be a data scientist to be data literate. A critical point to remember is that a Data Literate person is not about being a Data Analyst or Data Scientist. It’s about incorporating the value and insights available with data into our daily business operations.

Here are some skills a data literate person would have:

  1. Willing to question data – don’t just accept but question and validate, and ask more questions.
  2. Blend business knowledge with data/information – understand the business context and integrate data insights into business operations and decisions.
  3. Communicate – have a business conversation with the creditably of data.

The bottom line is your commitment to Data Literacy will make your stay at your transformed, constantly evolving data language-speaking company so much more enjoyable and productive. Get the most out of your travel experience. Jump in. Immerse yourself. It’s an ongoing journey, but the experience will be rewarding and productive. Be Data Literate, so you don’t have to be a traveler to your own company! 

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