Why Data Literacy is Crucial – Interview with Sarah Nell-Rodriquez & Chris Harris, Salesforce

Why Data Literacy is Crucial – Interview with Sarah Nell-Rodriquez & Chris Harris, Salesforce

Part of the DataVizLive interview series, exploring the conference sessions deeper, as well as showcasing other leading lights in Data Visualisation who are helping to improve how we use and present data for commercial success and social good.

allen hillery datavizlive data visualisation

Allen Hillery

Social Ambassador, Tableau
Advisory Board Member
Data Literacy Project

Why Data Literacy is Crucial

Allen Hillery talks with Sarah Nell-Rodriquez and Chris Harris, both Strategic Customer Success Managers at Salesforce, about this important topic that’s climbing steadily up the corporate agenda.

Sarah and Chris will be presenting about this at DataVizLive on 10 November – sign up here to watch live and ask questions directly, and also get on-demand access after the event.

According to EMC, we entered 2020 with about 40 zettabytes of data. That translates to 40 trillion gigabytes of data. To help put this into some perspective, we get 15GB worth of free space when we open a Google Account.

We are clearly living in a time where data rules. Computers have given us the ability to collect and store data in increasingly larger volumes. Mobile devices have put the power of computers in billions of hands. Our world is exposed to more data than it has ever been.

As companies plan and prepare to embrace a data driven culture, Sarah Nell-Rodriquez and Chris Harris would like to impart on them the need to do so with a people-first strategy. Sarah is a Principal Hightouch Success Manager at Salesforce, and she’s passionate about education and the difference it can make in people’s lives. She gives a first-hand account of how education has helped elevate her in her talk for DataVizLive in May: Data Literacy: What the Heck is it and Why is it so important?

I caught up with Sarah and her colleague Chris Harris in between conference calls. They are both passionate about data literacy and believe that investing in people will parlay into business success.

Allen Hillery: How would you define Data Literacy if your CEO asked you what it is while in an elevator?

Sarah Nell-Rodriquez: Interesting, why a CEO? CEO’s are more likely to understand what Data Literacy is, or at least, data and the role it has to an organization. If anything, Covid-19 has taught multiple businesses the necessity of data to bridge the digital gap we are all in currently. Data isn’t the question when it comes to CEO’s, it’s in demand.

The people who don’t understand Data Literacy aren’t people who are in a business, it’s the people in day to day jobs that don’t use data. It’s people who are feeling the impact of not having data skills, or access to platforms that can teach the data skills they need. I want them to understand that Data Literacy is what changes your life. It’s what helps you operate in a world that is increasingly full of data. So if a CEO doesn’t talk about data or data literacy right now, I’d be concerned.

Chris Harris: Data literacy drives culture and increases intellectual curiosity. You have to know the data about the data (metadata) before you tell a story. This is also the project that sent me down the rabbit hole of visualisation design—nearly 10 years ago. Today I split my time between data visualisation work and user experience best practices.

AH: You both emphasize data literacy being about people. Why do you feel making that distinction is important?

CH: It’s important to get a pulse of the people and where they are in their data journey. I believe that more employees need upskilling in data literacy than organizational leaders realize. There needs to be a cultural shift where employees feel open about where they are in terms of their data skills. Investing in people will parlay into business success because an empowered workforce will want to do more for their company.

AH: I think it’s safe to say that we live in an era where data rules. What role do you feel today’s technology has played in spurring the need for increased data literacy?

SNR: Data literacy is about skills, and specifically a skills gap created by the velocity of change with technology. The impact of that velocity happens to businesses, but a business is made up of people. It’s one of the major reasons we talk about data literacy in terms of upstream impact, and the ability to take a business from good to great.

AH: Businesses however have to invest in their workforce to fully leverage the data and make actionable decisions based on it.

SNR: You have to invest in people to help you get there. But it’s also about people, because our world is increasingly impacted more and more by technology, and many jobs are being either evolving into a new digital state, or becoming redundant. Where do those people go after that? We need to invest in people and help people obtain skills so they can find a new job to support themselves and their families.

AH: How has data literacy impacted you professionally and personally?

SNR: It’s my story, it’s my life, from the moment I left college to now. It’s the skill I needed to get a job where I could afford to put food on my table. Data skills have defined my professional growth and my ability to find a thriving career. I struggled for a long time to gain relevant skills that would help me to “thrive” and I’ve continued to nurture those skills ever since.

CH: I’ve always enjoyed engaging people in my career. I traditionally held roles in operations, or as a business analyst, where I got to work with different functional groups in my organisation. I wanted more face time with colleagues, and my love for analytics piqued my curiosity. I sought to change industry and function with my move from life sciences and IT, to my current role in software technology and sales.

AH: How can data literacy make an impact outside of one’s professional life?

SNR: Quality of life, hands down. Data literacy increases quality of life. When I used to teach Tableau in a classroom, I would frequently use my mom as an example. Whenever I was teaching a specific topic, in this instance histograms, I would think of how I would explain it to my mom. She doesn’t know this by the way, but she would be my baseline. If I could explain it to her, and she could come away understanding what that was, and why it was important, then I met my goal.

I think of data literacy the same way, especially with the baby boomers and aging populations. How are they going to navigate online banking or telehealth? All of these actions require a baseline level of data literacy. By knowing that, they increase their access to information and services, and be able to make better decisions.

AH: What will it take for organisations to become more data-informed?

SNR: Again, investing in people. Chris and I talk about how investments aren’t just financial, it’s about investing in people for them to gain the required skills that will be put back into businesses. Gartner says that we’re at the early stage of data literacy adoption, and that the need for data literacy is going to increase, peaking around 3-5 years from now. But it’s going to take a couple years to invest in a large community of people with proper education. The journey to being data literate is a movement and movements take time. No time like the present to get started.

CH: It’s definitely about investing in the employees and building out culture with an education state of mind. This means investing in skills but also giving employees the time and environment to do so. I see big companies taking steps to make their organisations more data-informed, but I encourage small and medium businesses to do the same. They need to invest in people to break into bigger markets. So opening up this window is advantageous to both the employer and employees.

AH: Data literacy isn’t one size fits all. What is bloom’s taxonomy and how does it illustrate this point?

SNR: Bloom’s taxonomy has secretly impacted your life and you didn’t even know it. Anyone, and I really mean ANYONE who has gone to school has benefited from Bloom’s. Simply put, it helps to build out learning objectives into increasing levels of complexity. If data literacy is about skills gaps, and to fill that skill gap we need education, then we need formalised models to help close that gap.

Bloom humanises data literacy and breaks it down in logical components of how people learn, and how we build on existing knowledge. To properly think of how Bloom’s taxonomy fits into data literacy, we have to think of how we learn, or something we have learned in recent memory. To some it’s running a marathon, to others it’s learning a language. I know for Chris, it’s learning to be a photographer. We do not start out as experts of our specific domains, we learn how to be experts in our specific domains and continue to grow on existing knowledge. That, my friends, is what Bloom’s does.

AH: Why do you think data literacy is often confused with data visualisation?

SNR: This is such a good question! First, I think of it like scotch, if anyone out there collects scotch at all. Whisky can be made anywhere, but Scotch whisky can only be made in Scotland, so there’s an axiom regarding scotch: “All scotch is considered whisky, but not all whisky is scotch.” It’s the same for data literacy when we break down the components of it. “All data visualisation is data literacy, but not all data literacy is data visualisation”.

There’s not an equivalence between the two, but data visualisation is part of the data literacy journey. That’s why it’s important to think of data literacy in terms of people, because no two people will be exactly the same. Everyone’s journey is going to be different, so the starting points are going to be different.

CH: I have a personal story to share. When I was looking to move over into the data space, I wanted to show off my DataViz skills. I thought data literacy was building a “nice viz” and showcasing it. So I worked on my modern dashboard with all of the bells and whistles displaying the company’s metrics. When I presented it to the entire team they found it fascinating. One of the managers commented, “It’s definitely easy on the eyes, but what do I take away from this?” There had been no actionable takeaways or recommendations.

AH: Sarah, What is the key takeaway that you want people to receive from your presentation?

SNR: Awareness, understanding and empathy. To see the world of data literacy beyond the upstream impact in a corporate setting, that’s what is needed. I want people to think of the downstream impact, and the people and faces who need data literacy today. I want them to see that each person we know today will either be a) an advocate for data literacy or b) a person who needs data literacy.

Watch Sarah’s presentation Data Literacy – What the Heck is it and Why is it Important? on DataVizLive On Demand, and catch their follow-up join session “Data Literacy: A Critical Element to Building a Data-Driven Culture” at DataVizLive on 10 November.

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