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Why Your Data Culture Will Depend On Data Storytelling

September 29, 2020

By now, most organizations have discovered digital transformation isn’t just about deploying new technologies or re-envisioning analog business processes. Human beings are an integral part of every digital transformation initiative. Because data is foundational to many of these transformative efforts, the maturity and strength of your organization’s data culture will often determine success or failure. In Gartner’s Fifth Annual CDO Survey, companies identified having a “data-driven culture” as the most critical factor to analytics success.

For a time, many people in the analytics industry believed opening up data access to more business users via self-service tools such as Tableau, Qlik, or Looker was all that was needed. The reasoning was, if more business users could simply access data on their own without having to rely on technical teams, the floodgates of insights would swing wide open to foster a more data-driven culture. According to a 2020 report by Qlik and Accenture, up to 75 percent of the global workforce now has access to a data analytics or business intelligence tool.

However, even with more user-friendly reporting and analysis capabilities, something else has been holding back organizations from seeing greater usage of data. Many organizations have begun to realize their people couldn’t take full advantage of these tools because their employees lacked the basic data skills to consume and leverage the information within these systems.

“75% of the global workforce now has access to a data analytics or business intelligence tool.”

The Need for Greater Data Literacy

In the Qlik study, just a fifth (21%) of workers indicated they were fully confident in their data literacy skills, which represent their ability to understand and work with data. Imagine having access to an immense collection of literary classics but struggling to read at even a basic level. The books would collect dust and wouldn’t be appreciated for what they have to offer. In a similar manner, most businesspeople are intimidated by the increasing levels of data they have at their fingertips as well as a growing plethora of analytics tools to choose from. If we want young readers to become excited about reading, we start them off with a Dr. Seuss book, not a Hemingway novel. The same approach applies to how we should nurture greater data literacy —  just enough relevant information to create interest and spur them to learn more.

Currently, the data at most organizations is often going unused, which means it’s not informing key business decisions. Even in our present data economy, Qlik’s study found 48% still relied on gut feelings to make decisions, and only 37% of employees trusted their decisions more when they were based on data. In addition, three quarters (74%) of employees reported feeling unhappy or overwhelmed when working with data.

“48% still relied on gut feelings to make decisions, and only 37% of employees trusted their decisions more when they were based on data.”

In Gartner’s Fifth Annual CDO Survey, the three biggest roadblocks to the success of analytics teams were:

  1. culture challenges,
  2. lack of resources,
  3. and poor data literacy.

Yet despite recognizing the importance of closing the data literacy gap, many companies appear to be unsure how to meet the challenge. In the same study, respondents were also asked to rank the top three activities that were critical to analytics success.

Shockingly, data literacy was ranked eighth behind more traditional analytics activities such as data strategy, data governance, advanced analytics capability, and data integration. While all of these data activities are important to creating a strong data ecosystem, very little value will be created if only a fifth of your workforce is confident using data on a regular basis. If the vast majority of your business users would rather avoid working with numbers, your company is clearly not on the path to developing an insight-driven culture.

Data Storytellers Can Amplify Your Data Literacy Efforts

An obvious way to close this key competency gap is to address it with a data literacy program. The Qlik study showed 37 percent of employees believe “data literacy training would make them more productive and 22 percent believe that it would reduce stress.” A data literacy program can educate employees through lunch-and-learns, internal training courses, coaching sessions, internal certifications, and access to more advanced external education. If all that was required were some data skills and knowledge, a data literacy program might be sufficient.

“A data literacy program can educate employees through lunch-and-learns, internal training courses, coaching sessions, internal certifications, and access to more advanced external education.”

However, there’s also an element of change management to fostering greater data literacy and a data-driven culture. You not only have to provide training, but you also need to shift the mindset to a data-first mentality. Gartner’s Senior Director Analyst, Jorgen Heizenberg, noted, “Changing the culture of the organization means changing the hearts and minds of individual employees (including leaders). As a data-driven culture is more of a factor of influence than of control, spread the word about how data and analytics can help drive business results across business units.” This is exactly where data storytellers can step in and play an influential role in advancing your data culture and driving positive change.

“Changing the culture of the organization means changing the hearts and minds of individual employees. As a data-driven culture is more of a factor of influence than of control, spread the word about how data and analytics can help drive business results across business units”  —Jorgen Heizenberg

If your organization is far from being fluent in data, consider introducing data storytelling into your digital transformation strategy. Beyond just communicating insights more effectively, data storytellers help evangelize the importance of data across an organization. When young children are developing their literacy skills, parents are encouraged to read to them — frequently. This learning process enhances the children’s vocabulary, comprehension, and overall language skills.

Similarly, data storytelling can help elevate your organization’s data culture in the following five ways:

“Beyond just communicating insights more effectively, data storytellers help evangelize the importance of data across an organization.”

Familiarity

When people are exposed to data through storytelling, data becomes less intimidating and more approachable. Over time, as individuals become more familiar with how to interpret data and read data charts, they will in turn be more comfortable leveraging data on their own.

Behavior modeling

Data storytellers demonstrate how to find and communicate insights in effective ways. While most employees will be content to just consume information, eventually they will have opportunities to share insights themselves. People will be able to lean on the best practices they’ve observed from proficient data storytellers.

Appreciation

Many people still underestimate or question the value of data. When narrative and data are weaved together, they not only highlight key insights but also reinforce the importance of using data. The more examples they hear, the more your people will be convinced of the tangible benefits data offers and why they too must embrace the numbers.

Dialogue

The insights shared in data stories can lead to healthy discussion. As facts and figures become central talking points, it becomes more and more natural for data to be a part of regular conversations within the workplace.

Curiosity

Data storytellers can also spark curiosity among business users with their data stories. As employees are exposed to meaningful insights, they will become more interested in what findings they can uncover for their respective areas of focus.

Begin Building Your Data Culture Through Data Storytelling

If your company aspires to have a stronger data culture, data storytelling isn’t the next level that occurs after everyone is data literate. With the right support and resources, data storytellers can help reinforce and up-level data literacy skills across your entire organization.

First, you must identify the right people who have the potential and passion to be skilled data storytellers. Do not limit your search to just your analytics or data science teams because you might find these individuals within your business teams. In some cases, you may decide to pair skilled communicators with sharp analytical minds to form dynamic data storytelling duos.

Second, you need to free up these individuals so they can hone their craft and focus on finding and delivering meaningful data stories. Challenge them to find meaningful insights and build powerful data stories that will inspire and motivate others to drive positive change.

Third, create a venue to share their data stories — directly or indirectly — with specific departments or more broadly across the company. In addition to ad-hoc opportunities, it may be beneficial to schedule recurring slots to highlight data stories in team meetings, townhalls, or corporate newsletters.

Finally, you’ll want to celebrate these stories, which will bring attention to the importance of data and how it is transforming your business. As you highlight how insights are being translated in business value, you’re essentially reinforcing the need for a strong data culture. Also, don’t forget to archive these data stories so they can be reviewed by others, especially new team members. When coupled with a data literacy program, data storytelling can not only help advance your company’s overall data skills but also foster a culture where the power of data is employed, evangelized, and embraced.

Brent Dykes
About the Author

Brent Dykes is the Senior Director of Insights and Data Storytelling at Blast Analytics. He is also the author of Effective Data Storytelling: How to Drive Change with Data, Narrative, and Visuals. Brent has more than 15 years of enterprise analytics experience at Omniture, Adobe, and Domo. His passion for data strategy and data storytelling comes from consulting with many industry leaders including Nike, Microsoft, Sony, and Comcast. He is a regular Forbes contributor and has written more than 35 articles on different data-related topics. In 2016, Brent received the Most Influential Industry Contributor Award from the Digital Analytics Association (DAA). He is a popular speaker at conferences such as Strata, Web Summit, Shop.org, Adtech, Pubcon, RISE, Crunch, and Adobe Summit. Brent holds an MBA from Brigham Young University and a BBA in marketing from Simon Fraser University.

Connect with Brent on LinkedIn. Brent Dykes has written on the Web Analytics Blog.

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