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CDO Challenges – Building data literacy across an organisation

In this ongoing series, DataIQ examines the challenges faced by CDOs such as how data literacy can be built across an entire organisation. We will look at where CDOs can identify the starting points and the introductory steps that can be taken to create a foundation for business-wide success.

One step at a time 

When assessing the data literacy of an entire organisation, you need a starting point. You need to know where each team stands regarding data capabilities and maturity. The easiest way to get this journey underway is to use a straightforward feedback questionnaire for team members and give staff small data-centric tests. This will help show where different teams are on the data maturity curve and make clear the specific areas which require improvement. Each team will have different capabilities as data impacts their day-to-day roles in different ways; it is often the case that IT and finance may have higher data literacy than others as these positions require a constant understanding of data but may have a lower level of business literacy. DataIQ Corporate membership includes a range of short assessments including data literacy. 

Another aspect is that CDOs must ensure people understand terminology that is second nature to data professionals. Terms such as data literacy can make some people defensive (no one likes to be called “illiterate”) and even the word “data” can make people think of unending spreadsheets filled with 1s and 0s. Of course, this is not the reality of data, but these things can be taken for granted by data professionals when trying to upskill non-data peers. Communication is key to successfully improving data literacy across an organisation.  

Make sure there are regular check-ins with different departments to check on their data needs and aims, create a glossary of terms that can be readily accessed, ensure staff are utilising their skills and understand how data benefits their individual position and to check data tools are being correctly and regularly used. 

Explain why data literacy is needed 

Growing data volumes are a key reason for emphasising the necessity of improved data literacy. Businesses are investing record amounts into the latest data architecture, tools and software to be ahead of competitors, and the return on investment can be made far greater if people understand why the changes are being made. It is not about enforcing new ways of working on existing staff members for the sake of data collection, but about empowering them to drive better decisions as frontline data workers to improve their departments.  

A secondary reason is that as more processes get automated and data-led, human tasks involved with the process require more judgment. To become data literate improves the judgements made by those utilising the data set and ensures the tools are being utilised.  

It can be beneficial as a CDO to set up simple presentations explaining the thought process behind a data literacy campaign and what improved literacy levels can achieve. This can then be further segmented into department-specific presentations that highlight data benefits for their individual goals as well as the wider business objectives. 

Lead with encouragement and communicate 

According to DataIQ members, only 20.7% would classify their organisation’s data usage as “advanced”, demonstrating that most businesses will experience changes and learning curves with data in the coming years. This is a great opportunity for data professionals to highlight their capabilities and to raise the profile of data within an organisation – this, of course, needs to be led by the CDO.  

The encouragement of staff from all departments to use their skills to source and interpret data is essential. Not only will this ultimately build staff trust with the data office, trust in their own capabilities and improve the quality of data captured, it is a prime example of a CDO demonstrating their knowledge, abilities and communicating directly with all aspects of the business.  

As staff gain experience in understanding and interpreting data, CDOs should seek to give them more responsibility or ask them to provide data that contributes to their department-specific goals and wider business objectives. The CDO should seek to ensure department heads and C-suite level executives are also confident and capable of using data for their departmental needs. When management lacks confidence in their own data literacy, employees directly beneath them frequently lack confidence too and it is up to a CDO to ensure people know how to ask for help, where resources can be accessed and whether they are completing the tasks successfully.  


There is a lot to be done as a CDO, and even more to be done when upskilling and educating an entire business, yet it can be achieved smoothly and efficiently by breaking down the goal of greater data literacy into smaller pieces. It is also important to remember that you are working with people all of whom have different existing abilities and potentials – unfortunately there is no quick fix to improving data literacy, but the journey is part of the fun.  

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