Psychology is the Key to Data Literacy

Article written by Nicola Osinaike, Illustration by Alex Green

The term ‘Data Literacy’ is far from new. Advocates around the world continue to explain why the ability to read, understand, create, and communicate using data (Data Literacy) is vital. But why? It is acknowledged that individuals with these key skills help organisations make better decisions – increasing profits. More decisions based on data and less decisions based on ‘guesswork’. 

Forbes highlights the prediction that 70% of employees are expected to work heavily with data by 2025 —30% increase since 2018. Has this high demand for data skills, plus the shrinking available talent pool led to mass investment in data literacy training? As a founder of a training company, specialising in helping auditors improve their data skills, this is far from the reality.

Data skills are increasingly vital but training is lagging.

Forrester Consulting identified that 82% of leaders expect all employees to have basic data literacy skills, yet only 40% of employees say they have received sufficient training. There is a disconnect between business leader expectations and the physical upskilling of the current workforce. So what could be the problem? Are business leaders not investing in training? Are individuals unwilling to learn new skills? 

As with all complex problems, there will be a multitude of reasons behind this situation, but the outcome is still the same. Data literacy levels are not increasing sufficiently to meet the level of rising demand.

Move beyond the promotion of data literacy

There is now a pressing need to move beyond simply promoting data literacy as essential. To make any measurable progress, we need to start understanding the real barriers individuals are facing to acquire data skills. Without this knowledge, the status quo will effortlessly continue. 

I launched my training company 3 years ago with the specific aim to help close the data skills gap across the audit profession. I assumed that all auditors needed was a data literacy training course, tailored for beginners to help them better utilise data. Following the grand launch, take up was slower than expected. I had no idea what I had done wrong!  

I soon realised the very existence of a training course was not enough to entice masses of potential learners to engage. No matter how often data is cited as one of audit’s most sought after skills. Auditors were not rushing my way to obtain training.  

So what have I have learnt from 2022 about dealing with failure, being brave and why psychology is the ‘overlooked’ key to success with data literacy?

Illustration by Alex Green

When something goes wrong, challenge your own assumptions.

Quit assuming and ask the right questions.   

We are all human and it is natural to make assumptions based on what we ‘think’ we know. What if the knowledge we relied upon to make that decision was wrong? Our understanding could be both incomplete and outdated. For many business leaders, it takes a seismic shift to accept they have the potential to make mistakes. They decide they need to have access to data skills. The assumption follows that with some patience this will just happen. I made the same mistake with my business. I assumed auditors would simply want to take my data training course because it was available. What did I learn from this failure?

I overlooked the psychology of the people I was aiming to help. Although the benefits of data literacy were crystal clear to me, maybe this wasn’t the case for everyone. Using empathy, I started to consider how many of them fear change and the risk of the unfamiliar. This influenced me to start asking different questions. What motivates a learner to spend time and effort learning data skills when they can do their current job just fine? Why are individuals not willing to self-fund data literacy training if employers refuse to invest in them?

I am still seeking answers to these questions and more but I have learnt when something goes wrong, challenge your original assumptions. This concept should provide a point of reflection for leaders. If you have a rapidly growing data skills gap, ask your own workforce what they need to help them upskill.

Group Think is a powerful force not to be underestimated

The status quo is the thing to be feared – not change.  

‘Group Think’ is a powerful force not to be underestimated. Often, when a large and influential group of individuals believe something is true, it can be hugely intimidating as a lone ranger to voice opposition. When a problem is consistently reoccurring, it isn’t radical to suggest the status quo is simply not working. Discussions around the critical need to improve data literacy are more than 15 years old – yet progress is still slow. 

During 2022, I have learnt to become comfortable challenging current thinking across the mighty audit profession. Featuring on podcasts, authoring articles and social media content to raise awareness on the barriers stifling improved data literacy levels. Going against the tide like this is terrifying, but I like many others see the inevitable future. Those who lack data skills will find it increasingly harder to participate fully in the workplace and even in society at large. 

I would implore those passionate about data literacy to be brave and use their voices more to challenge their own professions. Business leaders should take the lead and use innovative approaches to start filling your own data skills gaps. The fear of potential failure is insignificant when compared to the prospect of what will happen if you maintain the status quo.

Illustration by Alex Green

Pivoting from a defined path could signal weakness

The ability to pivot is a Super Power.

The key to running any successful business is to make the right decisions at the right time. However, passion and emotions can often make it difficult to do this well. It can be tempting as business leaders to continue on a set path as pivoting could signal ‘weakness’. I created a data literacy training course; it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves so what were my options? 

I could continue in the same way and hope for a better outcome. Or I could reassess my original assumptions and pivot in a different direction. Change the product, change the marketing or change the delivery model.  Not weakness, just good business sense. 

So how can business leaders and data literacy advocates gain the ability to pivot their approach to improve data literacy progress:

  • Discuss data literacy using relatable story telling – moving away from reiterating the ‘why’ of data literacy but using ‘real life’ examples to motivate potential learners to seek training 
  • Use more video engaging methods to help individuals understand why improving their data literacy is a priority – Tik Tok and Instagram are highly underutilised for this purpose 
  • Make data literacy more inclusive – comparing those who are data literate with those who are not is divisive. We need to identify practical ways different people can thrive in a data literate world. 

Data skills are fast becoming a critical enabler to business as well as citizen participation. If we continue the status quo, the skills gap will only increase. If we utilise human psychology – to understand the barriers to progress, to be brave in challenging the status quo and develop the ability to pivot in a different direction – 2023 could be a pivotal year for data literacy.      

Nicola Osinaike CIA / BEng is the founder and lead trainer at Audit Data Hub – delivering data analytics training for beginners. Using her jargon-free, fun, and engaging approach to teaching, she is helping those from a non-technical background begin to utilize data.

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