Q&A: Today's Basic Business Skills Include Reading, Writing, and Data Literacy
A new professor ambassador program focuses on highlighting educators who are training the future generation of workers to help their employers build a data-driven culture for competitive advantage.
- By Richard Seeley
- April 2, 2021
How do you teach data literacy to college students, who will soon be entering a world where understanding data, analyzing it, and conveying its insights will be as important as basic communications skills such as reading and writing? We asked Javier Leon, adjunct professor in business intelligence and analytics at Saint Joseph's University and Villanova University, and one of the first educators selected for the Professor Ambassador Program sponsored by Qlik.
Upside: How do you define data literacy?
Javier Leon: Data literacy is the ability to read, understand, work with, analyze, and communicate with data. In my opinion, being data literate in today's world is as important as the traditional skills associated with reading and writing. Students learn those skills so they can communicate with one another and continue to learn and grow into adults who are ready for the working world.
Data literacy is no different. Businesses depend on data to gain a competitive edge and will continue to do so in the years ahead. It will be up to the future generation of workers to help their employers maximize that potential and maintain that competitive advantage.
To me, learning how to read and understand data is similar to people learning how to read when the printing press was invented. We are facing a new revolution -- an information revolution -- and we need to make sure that our students are prepared to stand up to the challenges.
Qlik research with IDC found that as a result of investments in data management and analytics, three-quarters of organizations improved their revenue and increased customer satisfaction and loyalty. Nearly as many (74 percent) increased their profits and employee productivity along with operational efficiency (76 percent).
The skills of employees to maximize the use of analytics play directly into that value creation; a study conducted by IHS Markit and Wharton School academics, on behalf of Qlik, "The Data Literacy Index," found large organizations with higher corporate data literacy scores can have $320 to $534 million in higher enterprise value.
That's why it is becoming so key to our students' employability. Through Qlik's Academic Program, I am able to help students advance their analytical and data literacy proficiency.
We read that 90 percent of the world's data has been generated in the past two years. Where do you foresee that trend going in the next two years?
The amount of data being generated will continue to rise, and in turn, the amount of data that organizations need to stay competitive will increase -- but it's not just a matter of how much data you have, it's what you do with it. What can it tell you about your firm? Are there any inefficiencies that you can reduce or eliminate? How are your customers' purchasing behaviors changing? Data is the key to answering all of these important questions and so many more.
Data is inescapable in the modern enterprise, so it's no surprise that Qlik's Data Literacy Index found that 63 percent of large businesses are planning to increase the number of data-literate employees. By introducing data literacy in the classroom, we are equipping students with the tools needed to thrive into a competitive job market.
We want to ensure that our students are capable to make data-driven decisions. Their contributions to their companies in particular, and to their industries in general, is more likely to make a difference if they use the right combination of experience and data literacy.
Are businesses and public organizations going to be able to survive and possibly thrive in the midst of this data explosion?
I believe that they will not only survive but thrive because of data. Consider the pandemic: organizations that use data were best able to analyze the evolving climate and determine how it might impact various areas of their business. Now that we have seen its potential, organizations are investing more than ever in their data pipelines, and that's why these in-demand data skills are going to be even more critical for future generations entering the workplace.
Why is data literacy education important, especially in view of that trend?
Many are realizing the importance of data amid the pandemic, but there's so much more value to extract. The world we live in is digital and driven by data. That won't change, and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that our reliance on data will only grow.
Data is no longer something that's exclusively used by business intelligence teams. Qlik's research with Accenture, "The Human Impact of Data Literacy," shows that data is now being utilized every week by the majority (63 percent) of employees across a multitude of departments.
It is, therefore, critical that we educate ourselves on how to understand and derive value from this data. I want to ensure that my students have at least a baseline understanding so that when they do enter into the job market, they have the skills needed to succeed in a data-driven world.
What are the key points about data literacy that you want your students to understand?
There is more data generated -- by both businesses and consumers, as well as the products and services they use -- than ever before. However, having more data does not mean that you will automatically gain better insights. That's where data literacy comes into play. We need to be able to translate data into real business value.
Those who do understand and are able to analyze data and act on its insights -- they'll capitalize on it, transform industries, and better serve the marketplace. Individuals who are data literate will be the ones who will change the world, so we all need a better understanding of data in order to keep up.
When first encountering the subject of data literacy, are there common misconceptions students have?
I find that people can often feel overwhelmed by data. Students may be under the impression that they have to become a data scientist in order to fully understand it and get the most out of it -- but that couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, less than one percent of us actually need to attain the skills of a data scientist, but we all need the core competencies of being data literate.
What do you tell students about career opportunities where data literacy will be valuable to them?
I always tell them that business intelligence is a great field to be in. It is filled with opportunities and also with rewards for those who are willing to go deeper into the data of their organizations and -- also from society at large -- to solve problems that we do not know how to solve with traditional methods.
I also tell them that one beautiful thing about data literacy is that by knowing how to create visualizations and dashboards, they enable themselves to understand what it is they did not know they did not know. I know, it may sound confusing, and it should! In many cases, the issue is that we do not know what the issue is ... and by looking at the data, we are able to understand certain correlations and patterns that might have been veiled to us before.
People knowledgeable in data literacy have clear paths as data scientists, data analysts, business analyst, in business intelligence, IT, and many other careers. It is a way of understanding the different processes, their outcomes, and the organization at large.
Do you find that business leaders are aware of the need for a data-literate workforce, or is there a need for education at the corporate level, too?
Although the majority of employees are already working with data, those in leadership roles often overestimate how comfortable and confident their employees are. Qlik's research with Accenture found that 75 percent of the C-suite believe that all or most of their employees have the ability to work with data proficiently; 79 percent are confident that their employees have the tools they need to remain productive. Yet, middle managers and below don't share that same faith: only half believe their employees have the skills and tools they need.
In reality, the actual number of data-literate individuals is quite low, amounting to just 21 percent of the working population. This seriously impacts the ability of organizations to maximize the value of their data. Thirty-six percent of employees will search for an alternative method to complete the task without using data because they feel overwhelmed; 14 percent say they would avoid the task entirely.
Considering that most people are still overwhelmed by data despite its importance, it is very important that we ready the next generation of employees to competently participate in a data-driven workforce, as we do through the Qlik Academic Program.
However, this education must also continue in the field. There is absolutely a need to also support those already in the workforce with updated training programs, particularly given that these skills will need to continuously evolve with the onset of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and other data technologies in the enterprise.
What are the challenges of raising awareness of data literacy in the classroom and the enterprise?
Most people are already working with data, so low data literacy is not a problem of awareness. Many simply feel overwhelmed by data and will try to avoid it at all costs. Qlik's research with Accenture shows that only one-fifth of the global workforce is confident in their data literacy skills. The rest of the workforce needs data literacy training to help employees become more knowledgeable about -- and more comfortable with -- data. More than one-third (37 percent) of all employees believe that data literacy training would make them more productive and 22 percent believe that it would reduce stress.
Early education can get ahead of these challenges before future employees ever make it to the workforce, but it's not that simple. Not all teachers understand the importance of data. They may have been trained at a time when data collection was minimal and only data scientists had to figure out how to manage and transform data into insight. Much like their students, these teachers need to be educated about the value of data and how it has drastically altered the enterprise world.
The Qlik Academic Program is an opportunity to raise awareness among teachers and empower them with tools from the program to help their students understand and appreciate data. As an educator myself, I am eager to help more students become data literate and prepare them for the data-driven workplace. I am proud to be an ambassador of an organization that shares my vision to ensure that every student leaving education has the essential data literacy skills.
Is there anything I haven't asked about that our readers need to know?
I would like readers to know that teaching about data literacy is also about teaching students how to work with data and how to mine it. In my classes I explain to students the importance of using and understanding statistical methods such as hypothesis testing, data mining, and multiple linear regression. This way it is easier for them to associate and understand why we might be using one function over another or one graph over another and make smart choices based on what they are learning from the data they have.