We don’t acquire the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic by ourselves or for ourselves alone. We read what others have written and write for others to read. In this way, literacy and numeracy develop as social practices, reshaping families and societies as much as the lives of individuals.
For societies, despite some dissident voices, we find a similar relationship to success. For Deirde McCloskey, reading stands as one of the four R’s that liberated the world for the great enrichment of the modern age. (The other Rs take in the Reformation, the Dutch Revolt, and the revolutions of England and France.)
Modern societies so depend on literacy that many hold the competence as a human right. (Unless you live in Michigan.)
I suggest that, analogously, data literacy emerges not merely as an individual ability. It grows in business as a practice of organizations, transmuting teams, firms and economies.
In commerce, literacy serves employees well as individuals.
Yet literacy does not overhaul societies without effort. Four hundred painstaking years passed from the invention of the printing press to the industrial revolution.
The DataPop Alliance begin their data literacy workshops with context and concepts, setting data-focussed work in a cultural perspective. Only then do the instructors introduce methods and tools – the interpretation of graphics and data.
I hear often that companies and organizations want to become data-driven. Yet, they rarely discuss the need for staff to develop data literacy to enable that change. Or, they seek to hire in new staff with supposedly advanced – and therefore misleadingly rare and expensive – data skills.
I expect that we might usefully apply the lessons of literacy in wider society to data in organizations. Raising the data literacy of workers as a whole can transform our work through more receptive and informed collaboration in this moment, not only in the long run.
Don’t look on data literacy as just a competence to be hired for or trained in. It’s an organizational capability emerging socially through telling and questioning, conversation and debate.