Data Literacy – The Human Element in Data

25 November 2020 

A Q&A with Jordan Morrow, Head of Data, Design, and Management Skills, Pluralsight

In this Q&A, Jordan Morrow, Head of Data, Design, and Management Skills, Pluralsight, shares insights on what can help drive data and analytics success in an organization, and how curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking play key roles in this process.

Based on your experience working with numerous organizations over the years, how would you define a data-driven organization? 

The world as we knew it has fundamentally shifted. The pandemic of 2020 has changed the way we live and work. Will there be a return to a “normal” life? Of course, there will, but what exactly that is, we aren’t sure. One constant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was the need for individuals and organizations to consume data effectively to make decisions, drive behavior, and so forth.  In fact, one of the biggest buzz words or terms throughout the pandemic, as it relates to data, is “data-driven organization”. But what does that even mean? What does it mean to be data-driven?  That, in and of itself, could be an entire book, let alone a blog post. But let’s set a definition of data-driven we will use. According to, the term data-driven “describes a business state where data is used to power decision-making and other related activities efficiently, in real-time. For a business, reaching the data-driven state is like the difference between driving an automobile and traveling by horse.”i   

Basically, this means that data should be considered as an integral part of any business or organization. 

This pandemic has made it apparent that many organizations were not as “data-driven” as maybe they had hoped to be. Before the shutdown, organizations had been moving along their data journeys, trying to invest correctly and become more savvy using their data, but when the pandemic forced organizations to become digital, remote, and so forth, the ability to use data as effectively as they wanted was not there. One thing the pandemic can do for an organization is illuminate the gaps and holes in a data and analytics strategy.   

In your view, what is the most important enabler in the data and analytics space? 

In my work, I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of organizations, finding out needs, trends, and what can help drive data and analytics success. There are many skills and pieces we could talk about, but, indeed, the one I want to focus on is the one that truly encompasses the human element: data literacy.   

By definition, data literacy is the ability to read, work with, analyze, and communicate with data.  Essentially, data literacy is a person’s ability to effectively and confidently consume data. Did you notice what key term is not a part of data literacy’s definition?  Data science!   

We do not all need to become data scientists, but all of us do need to become more confident in our data literacy skills. This means the ability to effectively read and comprehend the data and information that is presented to us. We need to be able to work with data as part of our lives and our careers.  We need to analyze the information to find the insight within. With good insight, we can make decisions and empower people. Finally, we need to develop skills to communicate effectively with data.  And that means using less technical jargon and statistical terminology.   

Now, with data literacy, is this just going to be a onetime thing, or fad? The answer to this question is an emphatic no!  Market intelligence firm IDC predicts that the total sum of the world’s data will grow from what was 33 zettabytes of data in 2018, to 175 zettabytes of data by 2025 (a zettabyte has 21 zeros after it). Not only is there an expanse of data, but processing power and tools to utilize data are becoming greater and more advanced. We will need the human element to shape and be a part of this data-driven world. The questions can then be asked: What can I do to become more data literate and how can data literacy help the world on larger decisions, such as how to reopen a world through a pandemic?   

To become more data literate, personally, do you need to go back to school to drive a background in statistics, coding, and fields along these lines?  The answer is no!  A person can learn these skills, but just like most things, we want to start with steps towards an end goal. For me, I liken this to one of my favorite things in the world: ultra-marathon running on the trails. One doesn’t go from not being a runner to racing a 50-mile ultra-marathon the next day.  The same can be said with data literacy.  Don’t just jump in and think “I will study R, Python, or statistics”. We should start with basics.  For me, I look to what I have coined the “3 C’s of Data Literacy”: curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking.   

These are interesting – and rather broad – concepts. Can you please elaborate? 

Within the world of data and analytics, we get so caught up in the magnificence that is the data itself, the magnitude of it, and the power of the technology. All the while, the human element of curiosity can spark so much power with data and analytics. In this case, we are discussing curiosity as the ability to ask questions, challenge things. By asking more and more questions, we can pull in more and more data to answer those questions. This can lead to insight.   

We can also utilize the power of creativity to analyze the data differently, and to tell creative stories around the data, bridging the gap between the data/technology and the business. Finally, we need to use our human ability of critical thinking to think about the information and data that is presented to us.  We can’t just take all the data and information at face value, but unfortunately that is often what happens.   

We need to incorporate more questioning with curiosity, dig through things differently with creativity, and critically think to find the nuggets of insight that can change behavior and make strong decisions.  These things can empower individuals to truly succeed with data and analytics. The question can then progress to: how can data literacy, and data and analytics empower individuals, organizations, and the world to succeed in hard, dark times such as a pandemic or any other challenging situation? 

Overall, I think these answers are known and, in a way, intuitive. As individuals are inundated with data from all sides of a spectrum, it can be very, very confusing for them if they do not know what to be looking for. It can be confusing if they don’t understand how the data is setup and put together. It can be challenging when data presented one day has to be rescinded the next. Herein data literacy can help individuals to sift through the chaos that can be in front of us. This isn’t just during the pandemic – think in these terms for all decisions and difficult times. As we ask more questions of the data, dig into the fine print, and find the true insight, we can then make better decisions. Unfortunately, the data at times is just taken as what is presented, and we don’t dig in deeper.  Use the 3 C’s of data literacy and dig deeper. Read fine print, study the data, find out how and why certain data was pulled and built, and you can find out answers for yourself on what you should be doing, which in turn will enable you to make smarter decisions. 

For organizations and countries, data literacy will empower all to truly see the data for what it is, what needs to be done, and what they need to do to truly succeed in any situation. I like to think of data literacy as a way to sift through the madness that can be presented to us all day on situations: sports, the pandemic, economies, and so forth.  Unfortunately, not all the data presented to us is done with integrity or objectively. This is where individuals, organizations, and countries can utilize the skills of data literacy to properly read, work with, analyze, and then communicate with data.  Doing this with the right set of skills and right objectivity can ensure we are all moving forward with the right frame of mind and ability to make the right decision. 

The world, it is no secret, is now a digital, data-driven world.  Jobs and economies are shifting with the advent of more and more data and technology. We speak of upskilling employees, which we need to do, but at times it means the reskilling of individuals. Like other monumental shifts in economies and “ways of doing things”, we can help everyone develop the right skills to succeed into the future. Data literacy is one of those skills. It is up to us to seize our own moment to learn these skills, it is up to organizations to empower their workforces with proper learning plans and tools, and it is up to countries to make data literacy a part of education and curriculum. If we all put forth our effort, we can all be empowered with data literacy skills for the future. 

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.