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Data Literacy –What is it and Why Should Your Company Care?

Lisa M. Mayo, Director of Data Management, Ballard Spahr LLP
Lisa M. Mayo, Director of Data Management, Ballard Spahr LLP

Lisa M. Mayo, Director of Data Management, Ballard Spahr LLP

Lisa Mayo is a lifelong, adaptive learner and ITIL Foundations certified executive with 30+ years of law firm management experience.

Her current focus areas encompass the full spectrum of data management, including data analytics and business intelligence using design thinking methodologies. Additional specialties include enterprise data warehousing, process reengineering, strategic planning, and creating operational efficiencies.

Like it or not, we live in a digital age marked by an explosive amount of data. More than ever, the ability to work with data (i.e., data literacy) to gain actionable insights is now considered a core capability:

• At the end of 2019, the federal government announced they are upskilling their workers and holding them accountable. Under the action plan, agencies had until July 2020 to identify data literacy and skill levels within their agencies. By September 2020, they must have recognized the skills that the agency needs for its work. The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped this vital work. The Federal News Network reports that since March 31, federal agencies “have published more than 95,000 datasets to agency dashboards, while the Census Bureau has partnered with the University of Michigan to launch a portal that gives researchers access to restricted data from the federal statistical agencies”. Also worth noting: the federal government plans to “identify ways in which agencies can use data for evidence-based policymaking.” 

• Leading business intelligence solutions provider Qlik’s Global Data Literacy report says that only 24% of business decision-makers surveyed are fully confident in their ability to “read, work with, analyze, and argue with data.” And only 32% of the C-suite is viewed as data literate, potentially holding senior leaders back from encouraging their workforces to use data to their advantage.

• From a legal perspective, Law Journal Newsletters‘ article “Why Data Competency Is a Requisite for Tomorrow’s Practitioners” stated: “Whether they like it or not, lawyers interact with data every day. While there is no need for them to seek advanced degrees in data science or statistics, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to provide adequate representation without being skilled in the uses of data”. 

Data literacy is not something organizations can continue to ignore. I am reminded of a past orientation for the Philadelphia READS program that pairs firm volunteers with 2nd-grade students. We learned that from grades K-2, students “learn to read,” but from grades three and up, children “read to learn.” If those early foundational steps are not successful, it could adversely affect a student throughout their lives, resulting in decreased educational and employment opportunities. This anecdote has many correlations to data literacy. Firms, lawyers, and administrative professionals must spend the time now to learn data literacy fundamentals that will empower them to make sound business decisions (based on data) in the future.

What exactly is data literacy, and what is the business value?

Global research and advisory firm Gartner calls data literacy a “core competency” and defines it as:

“The ability to read, write and communicate data ‘in context’, including an understanding of data sources and constructs, analytical methods and techniques applied, and the ability to describe the use case application and resulting value.”

Qlik’s Data Literacy Project calls corporate data literacy “the ability of a company workforce to read, analyze, utilize for decisions and communicate data throughout the organization.”

Furthermore, the Data Literacy Index describes the business value of data literacy to an organization:

• Workforce data literacy has a proven correlation with corporate performance. Organizations ranked in the top third of the Data Literacy Index are associated with three to five percent greater enterprise value (market capitalization).

• Based on the average organization size of this study ($10.7B enterprise value), enterprises that have higher corporate data literacy scores can have $320-$534 million in higher enterprise value. 

• Improved corporate data literacy positively impacts other measures of corporate performance as well, including gross margin, return-on-assets, return-on-equity, and return-on-sales.

There is a direct correlation between an organization’s financial success and data literacy.

What does Data Literacy mean at Ballard Spahr?

Ballard Spahr has built an enterprise data warehouse (EDW) that captures data across multiple firm systems for more meaningful financial reports, tell a story, and provide actionable insights to drive positive change. Adoption by analysts in legal and administrative departments is key to helping our lawyers quickly harness and display custom reports for others at the firm and our clients. We have rolled out and continue to develop several data literacy initiatives.

Early on, we identified a pilot group of users (our Legal Project Management and Strategic Pricing groups). We embarked upon a high-level data literacy awareness campaign to raise the overall basic understanding of the organization's importance and value. For each business unit for which we create a custom data mart, we distribute a data dictionary that contains the system of record for each data element, a description of the data element, and, if necessary, what calculations are used for the measure. We plan to scale our program to a broader audience, “based on growing demand and identified areas of business impact,” as Gartner suggests. Our goal is to help our users comprehend data and analytics concepts, ensure that our lawyers and our IT/Data folks are speaking the same “language,” and to be able to assess the business benefits of this program.

We also hold primer meetings for training, tips, and tricks using our business intelligence tools. These meetings are open to anyone and to speak to the success of our program (as I related in a previous blog post), we now have several in-house citizen data scientists with the skills to work with our clients and design dashboards that our clients use to stay better informed and connected.

What can you do to improve data literacy at your organization?

We can all take some cues from the federal government’s data literacy initiative. Identify current data literacy skill levels and create an action plan to upskill your workforce. This may seem like a daunting task, but there is help. Many business intelligence solution providers offer free data literacy training to individuals or at an enterprise level. Just Google “data literacy” to find opportunities near you.

As Garner suggests, identify a pilot group of users where you have a high likelihood of achieving “measurable business outcomes.” While your program grows, you can incorporate a high-level data literacy awareness campaign to raise an overall basic understanding of the importance and value of data throughout the organization. Finally, scale the data literacy program and extend the curriculum to a broader range of courses and classes based on growing demand and identified business impact areas.

For law firm management and business professionals:

• Law firms and other organizations use various key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure success. Ensure your lawyers and business heads understand what those are and how their individual practice and/or group measures up to the firm’s (or company’s) stated goals.

• Think about what data you need or have needed in the past to make business decisions, especially strategic ones. Ensure that set of data is readily available to monitor against continually.

• Make sure your audience and data professionals understand firm-specific terms such as “apples-to-apples” and “apples-to-oranges,” as well as financial terminology such as “total cost of ownership”, and “net present value,” to name a few.

For IT/Data Folks:

• Become familiar with the various tools that you can use to enable solid data literacy skills at your firm. 

• Develop levels of proficiency. 

• Create and manage an ongoing data glossary and data dictionaries that include each critical data element's source system relative to the business group you are training.

• Include training on key data analytics terms and methodologies. 

• Ensure you are using this base vocabulary from the prior two bullet items regularly.

• Apply data literacy up skilling to actual business use cases.

• Start with a pilot group and grow the program over time, noting successes.

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