Data literacy campaigns
August 24, 2021

Sharing our readers’ progress with data literacy campaigns

By Paul Laughlin

Thanks to all those who participated in our latest poll on data literacy campaigns. The time has come to share the results.

Our short survey only gives a small sample of opinion (20 readers) but hopefully helps shed some light on how others are doing. With so many leaders grappling with the challenge of improving data literacy in their organisations, I hope it helps spark some relevant ideas.

In this post I will share the results for each of the 9 questions asked and comment on those findings. My commentary will also be informed from by what I have heard when talking with other leaders. As so often in the fields of data & leadership, I believe it helps to share our experience. I hope you find it helpful. So, without further ado, here are the answers to my 9 questions…

(Q1) Does your organisation have a Data Literacy programme to educate non-data leaders?


Despite the coverage of data literacy in so many publications and online channels, I was not surprised by this result. My informal conversations with data leaders also reveal that most have this as a priority but have not yet started. Most of them also said that it was in their plans for this year.

If that is also true of you, or you have started an informal (covert) approach, I hope the next answers help inspire you with potential content and approaches. As with so many challenges for data leaders today, there is a lot of benefit in just getting started and learning/refining as you go. I hope the last option will gain more votes in 2022.

(Q2) If you have a data literacy programme, how is it resourced?

This answer did surprise me. My informal conversations with data leaders had revealed extensive uses of online courses, so I expected many votes for them. The internal resourcing confirms what leaders have told me. But, I was surprised how concentrated the votes were, with no participants using external providers.

With the majority using internally developed material, there may be a risk of missing content or gaps due to groupthink or organisational focus. The 30% identifying that this is a ‘side of the desk‘ operation is not surprising given the pervious question confirmed that all who are already running a data literacy programme are taking a covert approach. Once again, I’m concerned if this is getting sufficient investment & resourcing to ensure quality.

(Q3) How big is the budget for the data literacy programme?


My concerns about investment, at least for some, are confirmed in this answer. Budgets of under £10k for half of respondents and under £50k for three quarters limits resourcing and content options. Obviously this depends on the size of organisations and the number of leaders to be educated. But a trend to ‘doing it on the cheap’ is always a concern.

When coupled with a theme of informal (covert) programmes, that many are meant to run alongside their day job responsibilities, it paints a picture of undervaluing the importance of this need. Obviously I haven’t captured some key context data (like size or organisation and size of organisation-wide L&D budget). But, I’d encourage data leaders to consider those comparisons. To make the case internally that data literacy is vital for the future of the organisation & should be prioritised just as much as spending on digital transformation etc.

(Q4) What is the planned duration for the whole data literacy programme?

I suppose these answers could be seen as encouraging, with a never ending focus on data literacy for half of the respondents. However, I interpret that as a lack of project focus. If work is to be a project, then one key characteristic is an end date. My fear is that half of respondents are having to (attempt to) deliver a data literacy transformation as just an informal part of their day job. Managing such work as BAU can be a recipe for failure.

My hope for the other half (with up to 6 months durations or over a year) is clearer prioritisation. The implied project structure could help protect resources and priority. Those leaders I have seen succeed at delivering data literacy have taken a change project approach. It is not an IT project, but is does benefit from deadlines and protected resources. How are you planning to deliver your data literacy campaign? Will that risk being robbed by other changing BAU priorities or urgent issues?

(Q5) Which resources are you using to educate leaders on data literacy

The most popular options selected by respondents align with the theme of an informal BAU approach to this change. It’s also to be expected that the lockdowns and more people working from home have increased the use of virtual meetings and online courses. As an external trainer myself, I hope organisations will reconsider in-person training and events soon. Done well they can be more impactful and memorable for stakeholders.

That said, I am encouraged to see more variety of content being used to help embed learning and cultural change. Using content related to news items, articles/books and case studies can all help keep the theme alive. In fact it reminds me of a change programme that I led many years ago to embed understanding of a customer segmentation in our business. A continual focus on creativity and using a variety of media for education paid dividends and kept them front of mind. So, if you aren’t using any of the above chosen options, I recommend you consider them.

(Q6) Which topics are you covering within the data literacy programme?

The breadth of answers here encouraged me. Some readers at least are covering a broad range of topics within their data literacy campaign. I applaud that. It can help bring to life for senior leaders how relevant data literate thinking can be to so many of the decisions they need to make each day. The top 3 topics above are not surprising, given their coverage in so many publications and blog posts. I’d also argue that it is essential to cover relevance for leaders if you are to achieve any lasting engagement.

My concern with these answers are the less popular topics. Graphicacy is increasingly critical to how leaders will need to consume data. With greater (rightly) use of data visualisation and hopefully a greater richness & diversity of charts being used, they need an informed eye. The skills to accurately read data visualisations and be able to approach them with a critical eye, are essential to informed decision making. The low score for educating your leaders how to best use data & analytics teams is a missed opportunity. Data literacy education will drive demand, so take the opportunity to also educate leaders on how to get the best out of these teams.

(Q7) Is your data literacy programme viewed as successful?

Reputation is so important for data leaders, including the reputation of their data literacy campaign. Given the current progress revealed in earlier answers, the most popular answer here is to be expected. Hopefully data leaders are also taking active steps to gain in-transit feedback and refine as they go. Securing early praise and support from the top table can be vital for ongoing success.

The other two answers may be more problematic. Lack of clarity on whether your data literacy campaign is viewed as a success is something data leaders should avoid. Those who are facing the (common) problem of the campaign being viewed as not having fully realised the expected benefits should act now. I recommend proactive action through one to one conversations with senior leaders. What are they missing? What do they really need? What would they do with that if it was achieved? Compromise will be needed, but establish a reputation for not giving up. For pursuing a solution to improve data literacy still, even if step by step.

(Q8) How was the engagement of senior leaders with data literacy programme?

These answers are a sad commentary on senior leadership teams. As Tony Saldanha argued in “Why Digital Transformations Fail” senior leaders need to be actively supportive. They need to show they have skin in the game. To tie their personal reputations to the success of such vital transformations. This is just as much true of embedding data literacy in an organisation. Managers & leaders cannot do it alone. They need effective air cover from the senior team and vocal visible support.

So many change projects fail and the history of project failures always identifies as a key issue lack of effective sponsorship. Sadly, here too, I think the lack of success reported in the previous answer could have been predicted just by seeing these scores. When the best your sponsors can offer is neutrality or somewhat supportive engagement – you are set-up to fail. I’d encourage data leaders to be brave from the start. Make clear to your senior team that they are not willing to be actively engaged and visibly supportive, then you may as well not bother. People in your organisation will follow what leaders do not what they say. If your C-Suite are not willing to walk the talk with regards to data literacy, don’t waste your time.

(Q9) What benefits have you gained from delivering a data literacy programme?

Although this might sound like an overlap with question 7, this time we are not focussed on others perspective. Rather out focus is the benefits recognised by the data leader themselves. The answers are more encouraging. Despite more work to do in convincing/engaging senior leaders, some changes have been acheived.

The most common outcomes I have also heard from data leaders are greater demand for services & more references to data by leaders (especially in strategy documents). It can be tempted to be frustrated by this. You could see it as just all talk or leaving the problem with you. However, I’d encourage you to be more positive. Opening eyes to the potential greater use of data can be a required first step. Just don’t respond by burning out yourself or your team. Rather I’d limit supply. Keep demand high by forcing stakeholders to prioritise and compete for limited resource (plus do quality work for those you do serve). It’s a recipe for future investment.

Is your experience similar or do you have a tale to tell?

I hope those results are useful you to you. Perhaps they encourage or reassure you. Perhaps they surprise you. If you do have a very different experience please let me know. I’d love to complement these survey results with sharing leaders own stories. If you’ve achieved delivering a data literacy transformation, why not share what you learnt in a guest blog post?

Meanwhile, let me finish by encouraging you that you are not alone. As these survey results showed, many data leaders are still struggling to deliver data literacy campaigns in their organisations. So, let’s be honest about the scale of the challenge & keep sharing. I look forward to hearing your experiences.