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Data capability: moving from literacy to fluency

  By Martha Horler   - Monday 14 January 2019

All higher and further education providers store, process and manage data in ever growing quantities, but how many people in your organisation actually understand it? What if we take it further and ask, how many people can use it effectively to make decisions and look at their organisation in new ways? 

Many roles in higher and further education now demand a certain level of data literacy in order to perform properly – being able to use a spreadsheet, run reports from a system or amend data in a database. However, if we are going to be able to fully utilise the data we have, more people are going to have to upskill from this to a new level – that of data fluency. They will need the ability to change data formats, manipulate the data using available tools, and to create the tables, charts and data products required to back up our decision-making processes. The excuse of “I don’t do data” will be less acceptable as more roles have data as a central feature.

So, why is getting to data fluency helpful to an institution? According to Gemignani [1] there are four benefits:

  • Better decision-making – by moving away from decision-by-anecdote or ‘gut instinct’
  • Better communication – spending more time discussing the ideas and not the charts on the screen
  • Improved accountability – measuring something is likely to lead to its improvement
  • A culture of learning – finding out new questions to ask and looking for new ways to explore the data

At an individual level, there are plenty of methods for improving your data fluency, especially since the proliferation of free online courses and apps. Learning new skills and software has never been easier, but the experience of how to use them properly can be harder to obtain. Particularly if you work in an organisation that does not value this in the way it makes decisions or communicates with staff. 

How do you know if your organisation supports data fluency? Try out these five questions to get an idea:

  1. Are decisions made using data to back up the options available?
  2. Can staff get access to training on statistics or data analysis?
  3. Can staff easily get access to data relevant to their area?
  4. Is there business intelligence software available to all staff?
  5. Do staff understand the vocabulary of the institutional statistics (e.g. how is a student or course defined)?

This list isn’t exhaustive, but answering yes to the above questions means you have made a good start on the journey towards a data fluent culture. It can be daunting to give everyone access to the tools to do this, but the rewards can be great – the advances in science that have come about through data science have been immense, imagine what can be done in the education sector if everyone were given the same support and tools as is available in the sciences.

I believe that team leaders and managers have a responsibility to their staff to set an example; simple things can start to make a big difference. If you want to make a change, find data that will support you and find out ways to present it that will make your point. Start defining your organisational terminology and share it. If someone puts together a new way of using data, celebrate it within your team and more widely if you can. Support your staff in learning about basic statistics and challenge them to use it in their work. Maintain transparency by always being clear where your data has come from and what you have done with it. Simple things like that, when used across an organisation can be transformational, but most importantly, communicate the importance of data in the sector.

Data is the future, let’s ensure we are all fluent in its language when we get there.

Martha Horler is a Data & Compliance Manager and a member of the SROC Steering Committee. She has spent over 10 years working in higher education, much of that with data and information systems. She has a particular interest in raising data literacy across higher education, with the aim of making data more accessible to both users and senior managers. Follow her on Twitter @thedatagoddess

[1] Gemignani, Z. and Gemignani, C. (2014). Data Fluency: Empowering Your Organization with Effective Data Communication. John Wiley & Sons.

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