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Simon Bullmore16/1/2023 00:12 AM5 min read

Want to be a data literate leader? You may be better prepared than you think

There’s a lot of hype and even more confusion when it comes to data.  And it’s both the success and the failure of the tech sector that many leaders are both intrigued and unclear about the potential for new data-powered technologies like AI and blockchain.  Read on if you want to find out how, as a non-technical leader,  you can use skills you already have to overcome confusion, and turn your intrigue about data into actions that will help you and your business be more successful.

Make it easy on yourself. Don’t start with tech 

It’s right that leaders are interested in how data technologies might impact their business. But the confusion that surrounds most data projects results in unsustainably high rates of project failure. Gartner put the failure rate at 85%, Mckinsey a more generous 70%.

The reasons data projects fail isn’t problems with technology. In the vast majority of cases data projects don’t deliver value because of issues with culture and skills. 

We’ve known this to be the case for a while now.

Back in 2017 I led the Open Data Institute’s work on an EU funded research project that found that one of the biggest obstacles to getting value from data wasn’t technical skills, but the disconnect between data specialists and the business. This and other research, is why industry voices soon started to advocate for people who could address this disconnect by being effective intermediaries, sometimes described as data translators.

Whilst this doesn’t mean that every leader needs to be a data translator, it does signal one area leaders can focus on if they want to step-up and help their business navigate the hype and start using data effectively. And that’s resolving the disconnect between data and the wider business.

Want to get value from data, now? Sharpen up skills you already have

In the majority of cases the value of data comes from making timely decisions. Decisions that drive actions, that in turn deliver good results. Decisions that we and others can trust.

Whether it’s using Google maps to decide how to get to a meeting, or dashboards that predict cash flow, data points us where to go or what to do next.

This is why for many businesses we work with, the focus of their data strategy is on improving decision-making capabilities – moving from decision-making based on hunches, to predictive decision-making based on live data.

When we start appreciating that decision-making is one of the ultimate creators of business value from data, as leaders we can also start to appreciate what skills we can already use to both develop ourselves, and help our business get more value from data.

Here are some skills and knowledge that you probably already have, and could use today to help your business get value from data:

Problem solving

As a leader with insights into how your business does and doesn’t work, you can play an important role in figuring out which are the most urgent problems your business needs to understand and tackle. You can also generate some realistic options that might help you address these challenges. Deciding which option to take and then committing effort and resources to that course of action is a key responsibility of leaders. You’ll often be one of the best placed people to evaluate what kinds of actions might work, any sector specific constraints, and who else might need to be involved.

Sector knowledge

Whether you do it yourself or  you’re going to work with someone else on generating data-informed insights, you need to be as clear with your questions as possible. Without that clarity the insights you might get may not be applicable.

A very simple example is asking, ‘what price should we sell our new e-bicycle for?’ On the surface this seems like a simple question, but it leaves lots of room for misunderstanding. Do you need to know what price the e-bike sells for to cover costs and make a profit? Or do you need a price point that’s competitive so you build a customer base for the new bike subscription business you’re planning?

Like many things in life, beautiful simplicity in questions takes time and skill. And it’s the job of leaders to make sure the time is taken in refining questions, and that sector and functional skills are applied during the process.

Need a structured approach to help you turn challenges into data questions? Download our free Data Questions Framework.

Strategic planning

Sharpening data questions is just one part of the process. You’ll need a capable data infrastructure if you’re going to make data-informed decisions you can trust. And by data infrastructure we don’t just mean the servers that store data and the wires that connect them together. Data infrastructure also includes the tech and tools we use to work with and manage data, the policies and regulations that govern its use, and the people and communities who access, use, and share it.

As a leader you don’t need to get hands-on building that infrastructure. But you do need to ensure that there’s an appropriate level of investment and effort put into building the data infrastructure required to gather, process, and analyse data for the critical decisions you and your team need to make. 

Building trust

You need to trust the insights that are guiding your decisions. And so do the people around you. 

An important part of a leader’s skill set, when it comes to data, is planning and putting in place a range of practices that happen across the lifecycle of how data is used by an organisation – from the way you (and your partners) collect data, to how data is stored, to how it is finally used. This requires looking at both the technical and human aspects of data, trying to understand how data supply can become reliable, and whether the data itself and the insights people take from it can be relied on.

Building trust is the focus of the emerging practice of data assurance, which brings together a range of existing practices, from data governance to data ethics.

Data literacy is about knowledge and connection

This is what data literacy for leaders is really about – knowing how to use data to solve critical business challenges by making better decisions. It's not about the technology. It's about making the connection between the challenges you've got, and the insights you need, to set a course of action you and others trust.

Want to discover more?


Simon Bullmore

Simon helps our clients develop effective growth strategies and data literacy programmes. With a background in business psychology, Simon has worked in data, business development and training for over 17 years. This includes leading the learning programme at the Tim Berners-Lee founded Open Data Institute, and the launch of Harvard Business School's first European office.