Every digital interaction we make, every product we buy, the number of steps we take, everything we watch on Netflix – it’s all tracked. The resulting data can be incredibly powerful, and this isn’t going unnoticed.
According to IDC, the amount of data created between 2020 and 2023 will be more than the amount of data created over the past 30 years. In theory, this should be a huge opportunity for organisations. The ability to analyse data, identify patterns and turn them into insights and storytelling, is becoming one of the key skills determining how we all interact in our personal lives, how we do business, and how we impact wider society and the environment – now and in the future.
“The ability to analyse data, identify patterns and turn them into insights and storytelling, is becoming one of the key skills determining how we all interact in our personal lives, how we do business, and how we impact wider society and the environment – now and in the future”
You could speculate that today’s young people (i.e., those in higher education or just entering the world of work) who have grown up with technology all around them, should have the subconscious and habitual data literacy skills necessary to take this to the next level. These ‘digital natives’ (DNs), as we’ve coined them, are often lauded for their technical skills over older generations and you could argue they should be affinitive with data analysis, storytelling and visualisation of key trends, patterns and spotting anomalies.
But are DNs as data literate as employers expect them to be? Are our future employees being equipped with the necessary skills to navigate and communicate data effectively? As young people enter the world of work, are they being empowered to not only use analytics to help businesses solve the data challenges they face today, but also to tackle some of humanity’s biggest challenges such as space exploration, pollution and climate change?
Delving deeper into data literacy
To understand all these questions better, we surveyed over 3,000 16-21 year olds in the UK, US and Germany. We combined this with in-depth qualitative focus groups with 18-25 year olds studying data-related courses, to explore at a deeper level the attitudes and understanding that young people have towards data.
Our findings highlight two issues: a genuine skills shortage when it comes to the more complex data skills gained through the education system, and a clear miscommunication between the language DNs use and the business jargon used by employers. This is a gap that needs to be bridged now.
In today’s increasingly digital world, data literacy is becoming an essential skill, enabling organisations to become truly data-driven. But despite over half of DNs (55%) believing that their ability to understand data will be as vital to their future as their ability to read and write, only 43% actually consider themselves to be data literate.
“But despite over half of DNs (55%) believing that their ability to understand data will be as vital to their future as their ability to read and write, only 43% actually consider themselves to be data literate”
However, this seemingly low level of data literacy may, to some extent, be down to the young people’s unfamiliarity with the term and the business jargon related to data and analytics. According to our research, 54% are unfamiliar with the term ‘data literacy’. The term is not universally understood, with many respondents focusing on different angles when asked what ‘data’ means.
MIT defines data literacy as “the ability to read, work with, analyse, and argue with data”. And just over half (55%) said they can read, work with, analyse and argue with statistics when asked the question in this way — which bodes well and highlights the need to explain business terms better to our future workforce.
In fact, respondents possess a lot of relevant soft skills that are crucial in helping organisations realise the full value of their data. For example, the majority (63%) feel skilled in finding information, almost three in five (59%) respondents feel skilled in problem-solving, and over half feel skilled in asking questions and presenting an argument.
Creating attractive data-related careers
How we define data literacy is important as businesses look to attract a new generation of employees to power the future world of work. But as well as address any language disconnect, they must also bring to life the benefits of data science to engage young people in data-related careers.
Survey respondents admit they have had little exposure to concrete examples of data-related career paths. One student studying Business in the US said, “I just don’t feel like we were taught about what a job in data really involves unless that’s what you’re majoring in. So, I wouldn’t really know, at 15 years old, what it was. I think I would just assume for myself it’s just counting numbers and something like that, it’d be boring.”
Businesses should take every opportunity to show the possible applications of data and shift this perception from associating the word ‘boring’ with data to positioning data in a more positive light. For example, resonating with DNs’ desire to make change and improve wider society; 65% said it was important that the work they do is actually making a difference, both to their employer and to wider society.
A Biotech student we spoke to summed it up as follows: “You go through the whole process of designing a product or pharmaceutical drug and, while that’s really hard work, it’s seeing how it positively impacts people’s lives that makes it worth it…The end result is about far more than 100 Excel files with boring data.”
A vital role for education
When it comes to education, the young people we spoke to recognise that the education system too needs to better prepare them, teaching them not only how to understand data, but also how to communicate it. Nearly half of respondents feel their education hasn’t given them the confidence and skills to use data.
For educators teaching the next generation of employees, it’s vital to recognise that building data literacy is as much about developing the ability to interpret data as it is about narrating meaningful stories revealed by facts.
Businesses should consider linking up with local schools, colleges and universities to initiate programmes that encourage data literacy from an early age. Or joining (or even establishing) a community which aims to place data literacy into the curriculum.
If organisations are to succeed in the data-led economy, they need to help bridge the DNs’ data literacy gap now – to create not just a productive workforce and truly data-driven businesses, but also a richer society and more sustainable future.
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