Executive Insights: Data Literacy and Real Business Intelligence
When I joined my longtime colleague and friend Howard Dresner at his company Dresner Advisory Services earlier this year, I was excited to be going back to my roots in Business Intelligence (BI).
I also looked forward to the upcoming fourth annual Real Business Intelligence event to be held in the spring at MIT. Well, like so many other things, the COVID19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench at those plans. The event was first postponed to the summer and then morphed into an on-line virtual event.
Now I do not know about you, but I have certainly attended a lot of on-line virtual events and webinars so far this year. I imagine the consensus with many is the same and we are barely past the mid-way of 2020!
The production of Real BI as a virtual event included the opportunity to incorporate roundtables and discussion forums in addition to keynotes and “main tent” sessions. I have certainly done many of these, hosted both in-person and in webinar formats. I was thrilled to host a Data Literacy roundtable on both days of the event with Jonathan Sharr, the Manager of Business Intelligence & Analytics at Middlesex Health.
Data Literacy is defined as “Comfort working with, manipulating, analyzing, and visualizing data” and is a key to success with BI, data, and analytics. Research from Dresner Advisory Services shows that:
- Organizations on average have a moderate level of Data Literacy today
- Data Literacy programs are not widespread in most organizations
- Organizations with higher Data Literacy have more Data Literacy programs, which fuels greater success and better Data-Driven Decision-Making
Ultimately organizations with higher Data Literacy have more successful BI initiatives – those reporting extremely high/high Data Literacy are significantly more likely successful in their BI initiatives.
We covered a lot of ground over both days’ session, and Jonathan was both an excellent and passionate subject matter expert. I had a chance afterwards to catch up and summarize some of the key learnings from an outstanding Data Literacy roundtable.
Q: Jonathan, what specific skills are most important to being “data literate”? And how does one go about teaching data literacy?
A: Data Literacy is so much more than technical skills on various software and much more about critical thinking and understanding. This is an opportunity to stress critical thinking and an understanding of the data itself, less on technical skills. Something I personally encounter is internal customers not knowing the right questions to answer. It may sound crazy but in healthcare something so simple as asking for provider activity based on post-date instead of service-date or being ambiguous will lead to different numbers.
Q: Our research shows how important Data Literacy programs are. What are some programs and initiatives you have run at Middlesex Health?
A: There is no right or wrong answer here, and this question always stimulates great dialogue. The obvious starting point is getting upper levels of management to understand the importance. We have focused upon smaller initiatives at Middlesex and they are certainly worth sharing. These have included internal “data dictionaries” to help create a central hub for KPI definitions, pilot in-person classes to teach basics, chart/visual analysis with a group along with examples and tip sheets, hold “office hours” for people to come seek assistance, etc.
Q: Jonathan, Does Data Literacy need to be tool specific? Is Excel important for data literacy?
A: The obvious answer here is no and an attempt to make sure people understand that “Data Literacy” is so much more than technical skills on various software and much more about critical thinking and understanding. You may laugh at this, but this is an actual question my team and I get regularly. While it may somewhat go against my standard answer to the question if data literacy needs to be tool-specific, I do personally feel that there’s a certain baseline skillset in any spreadsheet tool (Sheets, Excel, LibreOffice, etc.) needed for all 21st century professionals in all functions.
Q: Data Visualization is both a key technology and skill for BI. What is a good example of something visual that both conveys key information and serves as an example of the power of Data Literacy?
A: During our Data Literacy roundtable I had a framed image of the now famous chart drawn by Charles Joseph Minard in 1869. This shows Napoleon’s march to Moscow and subsequent retreat. Edward Tufte claims that “it may well be the best statistical graph ever drawn” and is often used when teaching data visualization. Edward Tufte provides a fantastic description in the book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. What’s amazing about the chart is it shows multiple variables in a single chart telling a rich story. From this single visual you can see, over time, where the army moved geographically, its changing size, its direction of movement, and the temperature. The story being that the French army was ill prepared for the harsh winter in Russia. Being able to spot multiple variables in a visual to see the real story is a key part of data literacy.
Q: Jonathan, we often say that it is OK to make mistakes if we learn from them. What is an example of something that did not go quite as planned involving Data Literacy that offered significant lessons-learned?
A: Have Data Literacy an integral part of any data project from the outset. We recently underwent a massive change at Middlesex where we implemented a new electronic health record system (EHR) and business intelligence platform. Teaching Data Literacy was not part of the scope of implementation but rather came into focus at the very end of the project. This set us back. Both analysts and end-users could be far more productive if we had planned for and started our formal teaching much earlier. Teaching the right mindset and technical skills are much easier before any system is place.
Jonathan thank you for your time today and for leading an informative discussion of Data Literacy at the Real Business Intelligence conference. We look forward to seeing you at next year’s Real Business Intelligence conference and hearing about the progress you and your team have made at Middlesex Health.
Jonathan is the Manager, Business Intelligence & Analytics at Middlesex Health with a passion for providing high quality financial and operational analytics for confident decision making. Find him on LinkedIn
Fred is a Research Director at Dresner Advisory Services, a high technology industry marketing veteran and former Senior Marketing Director for SAP Global Marketing.