How Data Communities Help Solve the Data Literacy Gap

Focusing on building internal communities that invite more employees into the data conversation has the added benefit of being cost effective and less reliant on one person or team to manage training responsibilities for an entire organization.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Forbes, by Ashley Howard Neville, Tableau 

According to a recently released Forrester Consulting study commissioned by Tableau about data literacy and culture in global enterprises, organizations that have a companywide mandate to their data literacy training have higher employee satisfaction levels with training offerings than those that focus at the team or department level.

With limited resources, it’s understandable why many organizations opt to utilize on-demand learning platforms to reach as many employees as possible. The Forrester study revealed only 40% of employees are satisfied with the data skills training their organization offers. Meanwhile, 71% of employees wished their organization offered more training than they currently do, and 63% of employees specifically wanted deeper, more relevant content. It’s time to rethink our approach to building basic data skills in our organizations to focus on relevancy, community, and inspiration, rather than isolated skill development. Focusing on building internal communities that invite more employees into the data conversation has the added benefit of being cost effective and less reliant on one person or team to manage training responsibilities for an entire organization. 

Data Communities

The big picture: The gap in data literacy

Investments in data collection and analysis technology are costly, but they lose their value when employees aren’t properly trained in how to use data. Only 39% of the decision-makers surveyed who offer data training make it available to all their employees. This is understandable: Formal training is an extensive commitment for everyone involved, including the organization, the leader, the trainer, and the employees attending. However, it can increase the accessibility of knowledge and employee engagement and result in the spread of data literacy throughout an organization. 

The Forrester study showed a significant disconnect in the different perceptions of data training among employers and workers.

“Employers lack awareness of shortcomings. Despite the low percentage of staff receiving formal data training, 79% of decision-makers say their department is successfully equipping its workers with needed skills, compared to only 40% of employees. Nearly three-fourths of workers say they want more company-sponsored data training. This large difference suggests leaders underestimate the training gap in their organizations.” 

“Building Data Literacy: The Key To Better Decisions, Greater Productivity, And Data-Driven Organizations,” a Forrester Consulting Thought Leadership Paper Commissioned by Tableau, a Salesforce Company, February 2022

Most businesses don't understand the value or have the resources, but training and data literacy must be ingrained in the company culture and a critical investment for long-term success. Ultimately, the data skills gap gets in the way of a data-driven culture and decisions.

“The big disconnect between employer expectations and the data training employees actually get presents a serious obstacle to creating the data-driven cultures many organizations desire. A telling example is that 69% of decision-makers say a lack of data skills stops employees from using data effectively in decision-making.” 

“Building Data Literacy: The Key To Better Decisions, Greater Productivity, And Data-Driven Organizations,” a Forrester Consulting Thought Leadership Paper Commissioned by Tableau, a Salesforce Company, February 2022

How to help solve the data skills gap

Fortunately, there are ways to supplement formal training and encourage the development of deeper data skills among your employees—without relying exclusively on a third-party vendor. 

Internal communities, a group of employees who bond together in the workplace to learn data skills in an informal setting, can help solve the data skills gap in a cost-effective manner that maximizes any tailored training sessions your employees have received from external partners or consultants. While they require a lot of investment and work from lower-level people leaders, they have the potential to be easily sustained. They can also grow in parallel with formal training programs, helping to maintain and/or grow them. 

Here are four ways internal communities can help your company to reduce the data skills gap. 

1. Less expensive than formalized training

Internal communities require one individual who can find a physical (or virtual) hosting space, time, and a small budget to bring people together around data.

Many internal communities often start when an employee has a passion for data and volunteers to coordinate and host. At other times, they may be more focused on analytical tools and hosted by a vendor or an IT team looking to increase adoption and update attendees on new features or policies regarding the technology deployment. However, internal communities can be launched with an intentional focus on learning basic data skills and sharing examples of how data is impacting the business. 

Lunch-and-learns offer a casual format in which training topics can be broken down into multiple hour-long sessions, making them less intimidating and easier to consume and remember. A lunch-and-learn doesn't require much of a financial investment; for in-person gatherings, folks can bring their own lunches. (But remember: People are always motivated by a free meal if you have the budget!) Other options include employees with good data skills hosting office hours or deeper engagements like internal user groups. 

As communities grow and demonstrate value, companies may choose to formalize hosting duties in job descriptions and dedicate one or more full-time employees in bigger companies.

2. High relevance to an employee’s motivations

Many companies currently look to partners and vendors to build their training programs for them. According to the Forrester study, 47% of decision-makers who offer data training said their companies utilized a formal course designed by a service partner, and another 32% utilized courses designed by a technology partner. One of the reasons for this may be the willingness of partners to customize off-the-shelf training for the organization. In the last few years, there has been a shift to not just focus on developing data skills, but building data literacy through training with a high degree of relevance to the industry, department, or even the role of an individual in the organization.

Brian Smith, senior consultant of data analytics of Cardinal Health, started an internal data community to promote data literacy among his colleagues. The program they used, TableauQuest, contained 17 hour-long recommended courses. Their analytics leadership gathered data about participation and completion, and what they found was surprising.

“Once employees were a handful of sessions in, it was like hitting a brick wall. We knew we had to course correct,” Smith said. “The off-the-shelf training was too long, even with gamification. And even with customizations, it wasn’t fully relevant to our community,” Smith said. 

When we look at what motivates employees to participate in data training, we see that relevancy to their current job ranks lower than other factors. In the Forrester study, 35% of employees said they're motivated to improve their data skills to be able to take on more responsibility. Only 21% said they would be motivated to go to training to live up to the expectation peers were setting to use data. Meanwhile, 40% were motivated by a chance at a promotion, and 42% at a chance at a pay raise. 46% were motivated by being seen as more competent, likely because 47% are wanting to increase their employability. 

The problem with conventional training is that it doesn’t provide an opportunity for people to demonstrate that they are ready for the next promotion. Employees want training that sets them up for their next job or role—not to do their current one better. 

The Forrester study captured a surprising factor when it comes to employee motivation: 57% of respondents wanted to better themselves. Oftentimes, people are motivated intrinsically rather than extrinsically. By participating in an internal community, individuals can demonstrate their growth in real time and network to identify the next opportunity for them to contribute within the company. 

“We decided to identify the concepts from the formal training that were needed to give a good background to data and Tableau,” Smith said. “We created a succession of topics and tapped star employees from within the company for a series of lunch-and-learns. Because it was so community based, we were able to say, ‘This is how people at Cardinal use data.’ ” 

By tailoring the basic training into a community based format, Smith and his colleagues made their training sessions highly relevant not to people’s roles, but to the needs and motivators of Cardinal Health’s employees.

3. Increased accessibility and employee engagement

Internal communities can assuage the intimidation factor that besets formal training sessions. Sometimes we forget the fear and uncertainty that can come from trying something new. Even if someone has the willingness to learn new skills, if they are intimidated by data and numbers, training can be daunting. When we think about our own experiences of stepping outside our comfort zone, it becomes easier to see how vulnerable it can be for employees to try to learn a new skill set such as data—especially if they think they’ll be graded on their mastery of the new skill at the end of the training. 

An internal community can bridge that gap by relying on supportive relationships to encourage people to learn. No one is expecting someone to have the right answer when they are participating in a community; they’re simply being asked to be present and participate. 

Internal communities can also provide peer-to-peer support. Furthermore, to encourage employees to learn data concepts, companies can host data visualization competitions that include tasks like cleaning or visualizing data, solving a business problem, or telling a story found in a data set. The sense of fun and novelty—especially when companies position participation as the goal—can bring more people into the community. 

Another option is launching a data doctor or drop-in help desk hours where employees volunteer their time to help their colleagues work through problems when they’re stuck. It can be daunting to admit you bit off more than you can chew. Oftentimes, an employee will be inspired to start using data, but get stuck when they run into a problem more complex than a training data set. Having a go-to person to help—which is something a community will afford—will propel people forward to further develop their skills.

4. Less reliance on one person or team to manage training responsibilities for your entire organization

Training can be a lot of work for an organization to take on. But it’s easier to spread the workload with internal communities.

Oftentimes, employees who are motivated to attend advanced data training get stuck doing the work for many of their colleagues, which is not a sustainable workload or solution. Ideally, an employee who receives highly specialized training can share that knowledge with their colleagues so more people can achieve a higher level of capability with particular skills. This is where informal communities come into play.

Leaders should deputize data champions in their company who can advocate for training opportunities and let others know how to participate. And if an employee responsible for teaching others about data leaves your company, with internal communities, there's now an entire contingent of people who can help carry on the work of promoting data literacy; it’s not the responsibility of one person. 

An important step forward for company-wide data literacy

“Respect time; time is always precious,” said Smith. “Respect value. When people have asked me what the point of our user group is, I say it’s there to ensure our company leverages all the investment from data and Tableau that we can. If you give people a tool and they can’t use it, those are not resources well spent. Always respect time, and always respect value. Demonstrate what the investment is doing for your company.”

By fostering a company culture in which the development of informal data communities is encouraged, leaders can take an important step in reducing disparities in data skills among their employees. 

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