SINGAPORE (Sept 7): Hundreds of years ago, literacy was rare. The invention of the printing press resulted in more people reading as printed materials became available to a bigger part of the population. However, it wasn’t until books became widely available that literacy became widespread.

A similar evolution is happening in data analytics. Just as literacy is the ability to derive information from the written word, data literacy is about the ability to derive meaningful information from data. For decades, data analysts were the only ones who had access to, and could work with corporate data. They were the gatekeepers and anyone in the company who wanted access had to go through them. In today’s digital age where organisations see the value in their abundant data, coupled with modern business intelligence (BI) tools accessible to more people within an organisation, data analytics is no longer the domain of the specialist users.

Are we ready for the next step in literacy?

Singapore was ranked the top performer in the recent global smart city ranking by Juniper Research, with data at the core that powers Singapore’s Smart Nation vision. The recently launched Digital Government Blueprint demonstrates Singapore government’s ambition to harness data and new technologies to realise this vision. Businesses across industries are also recognising that a concerted effort is required to put data at the core of their organisations, fundamentally driving business decisions. This year, LinkedIn listed BI as one of the hottest skills and most likely to get one hired. Much like proficiency in Microsoft Office has been in the last 10 years, data literacy will become a job requirement of the future.

Yet, we are only at the beginning of this journey.

Today’s business leaders have access to more data than any of their predecessors, but many still have no idea how to harness the power of data for their business. A study by CMMI Institute uncovered an alarming scenario: 52% of C-suite executives have dismissed data simply because they couldn’t understand it. The impact of this decision on their organisations will be nothing short of catastrophic.

Data literacy is not just for the IT geeks

Contrary to common belief, data skills are not just about maths and statistics, and nor is it about the technology. There are many different ways people work with data and not everyone needs to be a data scientist.

Much like people do not need to be Shakespeare to write well, they do not need to be IT-trained to analyse data. Data literacy is asking the right questions about the validity of the data – how the data was collected, can the data be trusted, and how can it be analysed to benefit the organisation. Critical thinking is important for successful analytics.

Literacy also involves communication, as data can be worthless if only one person or department sees the value in it. Making an impact using insights derived from data might require buy-in from colleagues or stakeholders. Therefore, skills like storytelling and design become essential, as they allow insights to be communicated in a simple and visually appealing way which people can understand.

Increasingly in future, everyone will work with data in different ways; some will create it while others will only consume it. The skill requirements, therefore, would vary across an organisation – being technical for the workforce creating data and analytical for the ones consuming it. Data skills will be crucial in order to apply critical thinking to data, and storytelling with your data. In fact, Gartner predicts that 80% of organisations will roll out competency programmes in the field of data literacy by 2020.

Do you speak data?

Poor data literacy is often rooted in ineffective communication across an organisation5. Organisations will take a huge step forward in data literacy when two factors come together – top-level buy-in and the strategic commitment to see data as a second language.

Learning any new language takes commitment, effort and time. Employees must be encouraged to recognise the value of the new skill, be motivated to learn, and constantly practise. In the beginning, trust and curiosity are needed for workers to “let go” of their old ways– for example, running to the BI team whenever they need any analysis. After all, embracing a new change can be intimidating. Leaders, too, are sometimes wary that if they open data up to too many people, misuse or misinterpretation will result.

However, making data available to all is the first step towards changing the mindset. To truly master the language, workers need to start asking and answering real-world questions, and learning to analyse and interpret data before eventually communicating their stories.

Are we on the verge of the next phase?

Data will – within one generation – become a second language for everyone here. Singapore can only become a Smart Nation as more people are enabled to uncover the value of data and share their insights, i.e., comprehend the language of data. This evolution is as pertinent in the private sector as it is in the public sector as integration of their strategies will truly shape the real face of a ‘Smart Singapore’.

Mac Bryla is a Technology Evangelist, Asia Pacific, at Tableau