The cultural chasm: why your strategy will fail without a data-literate organisation

By Ben Cave

Your organisation generates vast and growing reserves of data. But how do you ensure you capture its value? ODI Senior Learning Consultant Benjamin Cave sheds light on the importance of fostering data-literacy and culture change within organisations

null Times of change: if culture is crucial and our data leaders need to adapt it, how can this be done? CC BY 2.0, uploaded by [Alene Davis](https://www.flickr.com/photos/alenedavisphotography/2970633602/in/photolist-5wvgSJ-8zQrnk-pHj2GY-8P9Nu9-kVqDzp-cUGRcC-6hqjCv-pLMiht-q6uMz1-pCW1QN-kXzv4N-dqRpQT-p5jran-atqwnS-ayFdQZ-7jLPKC-pQSzi8-dfCXQa-oGhpUf-dahcPk-pnnctP-ndW2tB-gwKmTa-7DfZW1-6WZTke-aADymn-7PwCcC-77Pkxw-pR319H-ph8Vjm-aB8aQj-bE6Xyy-dnWBpV-axzxqT-5p5BBP-5y6tCG-afUZR4-hSsjYg-5swJDX-oKkzGV-ppTWtW-fudAtP-pfSEdV-78RBJP-gDovBy-di55pJ-7bNh7A-nbkbGT-g6CeWk-poto1A “Alene Davis").

A data-literate person can recognise and comprehend data and the results of data. The organisations that succeed in this century will be those who share a culture of data with all their workforce.

Many businesses see the answer to capturing value from data in building an enterprise data strategy. The hype curve of ‘big’ data along with new analytic and data-science capabilities have significantly improved value captured from ‘data exhausts’.

But this Achilles has a heel. To paraphrase Peter Drucker: 'culture still eats strategy for breakfast'. Modern data strategy disregards culture and in so doing creates new silos. Most data strategies retrofit an elite of data-skilled specialists onto organisations that are, at their core, analogue. Rather like strapping a rocket to a skateboard.

But data doesn’t stay with the specialists. It is collected, maintained and provided by that analogue organisation. They remain unaware of the growing importance of their data strategy to the organisation, and uninitiated into the culture of data. They will continue, unwittingly, to neglect data quality. And, as the saying goes: 'garbage in, garbage out'.

Bringing the organisation with you

Culture is a necessary condition of strong data leadership. Leaders like Brian Bissett and Peter Williams highlight that your data strategy is only as good as your data culture. Fostering a strong culture can pave the way for strategy and significantly enhance the effectiveness of new initiatives by bringing the organisation – not just the specialists – along with you. So why is it so rare?

First, culture change is messy and uncertain. 70% of all culture change programmes fail. Second, senior data strategists have too narrow a focus. 77% were focussed on data governance alone as their first priority. Third, data officers tend to come from backgrounds without organisational change experience. 64% of CDOs came either from IT or data.

If culture is crucial and our data leaders need to change it, how can this be done? From my experience working with leaders here at the ODI, the answer is straightforward: build a data-literate organisation that shares and supports your vision for the future.

How to build a data-literate organisation, fast

As a leader, Learning & Development (L&D) is a priority for developing your staff. Where data strategy is concerned, L&D priorities tend to focus on technical specialists, prioritising the skills required to execute. To build a culture, however, you need to consider the whole organisation and its levels of data literacy.

Step 1: Assess the requirements
First, assess the knowledge and skills required to implement a culture of data. To help you, the ODI has developed the Data Skills Framework. This tool helps you to deliver a culture of data throughout your organisation while still giving the technical specialists what they need to perform. For best results, link the framework to strategy and determine when and where knowledge needs to be delivered to maximise success.

Step 2: Open up
Creating a culture of data is about letting everyone share your excitement. The two killers of data strategy are secrecy and ignorance. With a focus on data literacy for all, L&D addresses both.

Use your learning approach as internal comms. Introduce your strategy in a format and language that excites your audience. Most of us aren't particularly excited by ‘optimising our data warehousing to reduce satellite management costs’. But many of us would be excited by ‘only having to look in one place any time you need data to do your job’.

Finally, keep your approach blended. Some people will only concentrate in the training room. Others need privacy to process. Let people pick and choose how they learn and you will find more people understand and engage with your strategy.

Step 3: Monitor and move
Building a culture of data requires flexibility and regular monitoring. Data literacy needs to be timely and deployed in support of strategic priorities.

When specific initiatives are launched, ensure that L&D is there to pave the way for success. Monitor change regularly and adapt quickly, as required.

Data-literate is not the same as data-skilled

A data-literate organisation is one that shares a culture of data and a strong vision of the future. Most people invested in this vision will have no analytic interaction with data and may never need to. We don’t need organisations of data scientists.

A literate person can read and comprehend the written word. A data-literate person can recognise and comprehend data and the results of data. The organisations that succeed in this century will be those who share a culture of data with all their workforce.

Those who choose to concentrate their strategy and data literacy with an elite will find that, like a rocket strapped to a skateboard, the convenience is not worth the eventual pain.

To increase organisational data-literacy, and support leaders in implementing data strategy, the Pre-Summit Training Day on 31 October is designed around the Skills Framework to increase capacity across strategic, practical and leadership roles. For more tailored training on how to foster a culture of data, check out our newly launched Building a Business Case with Open Data and Open Data Strategy workshops or get in touch at [email protected] for advice.