Business leaders have a data literacy problem

Strategy is the path that leaders divine for organisations to take in pursuing their short- and long-term goals. Leadership is the glue that keeps everyone and everything together during the course of pursuing these strategic outcomes. Data literacy is the new intellectual underpinning

of every successful strategy going forward. All three working in concert is how organisations can exploit the potential of data and analytics for strategic success at the expense of their competition or to delight their citizens. It’s what I refer to as ‘embracing the data leadership nexus’.

We now live in a time when every champion of industry, politician and civil servant is a self-proclaimed expert on strategy and leadership, and yet most, if not all, are data (and analytics) illiterate. Having no specific first-hand knowledge or experience in the domains of data, analytics and decision science, they continue to rely on ‘processed information’ – via so-called data scientists – and personal gut instinct to formulate plans, make decisions and react to emerging situations. Each decides what balance of ‘head and heart’ they will use for each and every decision.

In a dangerous twist, many ‘leaders’ in recent times have decided to ignore facts and evidence altogether and base their decisions solely on ideology. I am certain that most of our readers are aware of these, as borne out in the major political calamities of 2016.

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There are many who aspire to the mantle of leadership. It is a tough road for most, with many pitfalls along the way. Surmounting these challenges is part of the maturation and hardening process that leaders must go through to earn their stripes.

The challenges that leaders face today, and in the future, will be many and ever-growing in terms of complexity and nuance, but they now have at their disposal science-based facts, evidence and methodologies for making data-driven decisions at every turn. All that is required is belief in the notion of data-driven decision-making and basic literacy and competencies in the use of data and analysis to underpin decisions, insights and ultimately strategy.

Improving data literacy

While straightforward in respect to need, the efforts required to overcome the lack of data literacy by leaders are substantial. The current generation of leaders and leadership candidates
are not equipped intellectually and experientially to be truly data-driven. They must be mentored, tutored and enlightened by examples of where data-driven decisions have paid off in terms of differentiation, insights, risk mitigation, etc.

This approach will allow them to experience first-hand the personal growth and benefits that come from investing time and effort in data literacy endeavours. It will also heavily influence other leaders and those on the leadership track as to what the future holds with respect to competencies and the outcomes that can be achieved by a data-driven approach.

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Leaders today face a barrage of hype about big data, digital and analytics. Few actually understand what any of it truly means, but all want to ‘have some’ for their organisation. This paradox of need versus understanding must be addressed through data literacy endeavours. Only then will we have leaders who are competent in the domains of data, analytics, decision science and, yes, even digital.

They will then have the acumen and confidence to define core strategies that will leverage these competencies to achieve specific and sustainable outcomes for their organisation, regardless of sector. It will also bring to an end the nonsensical notion that data and analytics, decision science and digital are ‘bolt-on’ functional capabilities that require separate strategies (or transformation programmes) to make them achievable.

Every organisation, regardless of size, sector or mission statement, must use its core competencies in an integrated form to create strategic advantage. Leadership that is literate in these same domains is well positioned to exploit them fully, while reducing inherent risks to a manageable level of tolerance.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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