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Data literacy: How to support a data-driven culture

09 Jun 2022

In a world where many businesses are changing course or sinking because of the uncertainty brought by the pandemic, the compass that should guide you safely ashore is data. Swift changes are now part of the daily routine: changes on restrictions in the way businesses operate, in the financial support available to businesses and individuals and in people’s buying habits and commercial behavior. But you don’t need yet another post about the Covid-19 pandemic, so instead let’s focus on the solution: data and business analytics.

Smart businesses embrace change by becoming more agile. By making effective decisions, fast. In this article, I will briefly cover the reasons why your organization should embrace a data-driven culture, then focus on the most effective, research-based strategy that enables you to build it.

What is data-driven decision making?

While data, like a compass, will help you determine your position in the metaphoric ocean, merely being aware of the information it gives you won’t steer the ship for you in the right direction. You and your crew must know how to read the compass and use that information appropriately to achieve a common objective. In other words, you and your crew must know how to read the data and how to apply it. In fact, our interviews on this subject with business leaders pointed to four skills employees must master to make the most out of the business analytics available: They must be able to understand, evaluate, apply, and communicate data.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the ways a sales manager can use data to boost sales. When she looks at her team’s monthly sales report, the manager needs a deep understanding of what that report is telling – for example, being able to distinguish between the number of sales and the actual revenue. A hundred sales worth $10,000 each are not the same as 10 sales worth $100,000 each. She also needs to evaluate the information by giving it some context: unless she compares that report with the previous month or the same month last year, she won’t be able to identify whether the trend is moving upward or downward. Once she has learned and absorbed the information the report gave her, she must choose the appropriate reaction. If the sales are bad, is she going to sit back and wait for the pandemic to be over because that’s the root cause of all problems? Data literate leaders will seek to act on what they learn from data. The final question is: how is she going to communicate this information to her colleagues and higher-ups? The ability to communicate data clearly and transparently is crucial, otherwise the left won’t know what the right is doing.

Whilst building a data-driven culture will likely benefit your sales, there are a range of tangible results you can achieve in every business function, to name just a few:

  1. Empowering employees to make better, objective decisions by backing up their work and ideas with facts, instead of opinions.
  2. Your team will be able to track and review its performance against KPIs, therefore boosting the productivity and fairness of business processes.
  3. By using the right business analytics tools your team will identify problems in record time, therefore cultivating agile management.
  4. Spotting negative trends in data early on will save your company money.
  5. Predictive analytics will also allow you to forecast trends to assist sales, new initiatives, or inform the development of new products.

Developing a data-driven culture: a research-based process

To foster a culture where data takes precedence, you must start from within. Francesco Polese, researcher, and his colleagues reviewed 51 business research articles on big data and data-driven decision making. They concluded that the most successful approach is bi-directional: your strategy must begin by developing your employees’ data literacy skills, which will naturally lead toward adopting the appropriate business analytics tools.

Polese and his colleagues advise you to muster internal resources first. The employer should identify data-management skills where they already exist among their workforce and seek to cultivate them. These can be anything from technical capability (e.g. handling data analysis software) to interpersonal qualities (e.g. organizational planning); from structured thinking (e.g. setting data collection objectives), to creative thinking (e.g. organizing information to derive innovative insights). Communication skills are not to be neglected either as many employers feel that not everyone who can understand data is willing or capable of communicating it clearly and unhinderedly to others. Only when your team’s confidence in their ability to work with data reaches a comfortable level[1] is it the right moment to introduce business analytics tools – and Polese & co. readily gathered the best directions to start from if you’d like to read more technical information.

Questionmark has recently released a data literacy skills assessment which gives you a head start in cultivating your employees’ ability to work with data. The test will give you an overview of their current competency level and suggest areas for improvement. You can complement this with the A103: Introduction to Data Literacy training course provided by Cambridge Assessment to develop your team’s ability to make decisions based on data right away.

Take-home message

Inspiring your organization to embrace data isn’t for the faint hearted. But it is the only proven way out of uncertainty. It is a collective effort that the entire organization must partake in. Nevertheless, you must ensure that you and your employees go beyond just being aware of data; you need to act on it correctly and communicate it to others. If used right, it can benefit any type of organization and any business function; there’s a wide range of processes you can improve by inserting data into the equation. To cultivate this mindset, research suggests that you should start by developing an internal strategy that empowers your employees to lead the change. I hope this article provided you the right tools and knowledge for a smooth start.

To learn more about Questionmark or our new data literacy assessment, Questionmark Data Literacy by Cambridge Assessment, please talk to us today.


[1] Another piece of research suggests that only 21% of employees worldwide are confident in their data literacy abilities:

Geczy, P. (2018). Data-Oriented business models: gaining competitive advantage. Global Journal of Business Research, 12(2), 25-36.

Polese, F., Troisi, O., Grimaldi, M., & Romeo, E. (2019). A big data-oriented approach to decision-making: a systematic literature review. In 22nd International Conference Proceedings (pp. 472-496).

Yaqoob, I., Hashem, I. A. T., Gani, A., Mokhtar, S., Ahmed, E., Anuar, N. B., & Vasilakos, A. V. (2016). Big data: From beginning to future. International Journal of Information Management, 36(6), 1231-1247.


Fan, S., Lau, R. Y., Zhao, J. L. (2015), “Demystifying big data analytics for business intelligence through the lens of marketing mix”, Big Data Research, 2(1), 28-32.

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