Data Leadership starts with Data Literacy

By Daragh O Brien
June 10, 2020
14min read
Calm Down Quote

My friend Anthony Algmin has a thought provoking post on this month (alongside my thoughts on data in the “new normal”). Anthony makes some fantastic points about how the social and economic recovery from the deep freeze of Covid-19 will need a new breed of data leader to emerge, one that has learned the lessons of the last 30-odd years we’ve spent not quite getting it right. The importance of an information-enabled strategy for future competitiveness and mid-term survival simply cannot be understated. As Anthony puts it:

When times were good, as they arguably were throughout the 2010s, businesses could get away with being bad at data. Times are most certainly no longer good, and we are going to need every advantage we can find.

The statistics should be sobering:

  • Between 60% and 80% of Digital Transformation initiatives fail. This is EXACTLY the same as the failure rate for CRM and ERP projects over a decade and a half ago. And the causes are broadly similar: a failure to consider the data issues early in the project leading to overruns on time or budget or under-delivery of scope or quality. Back in 2018 Forbes estimated this as a $900 billion hole in enterprise strategy. But nobody seems to have noticed.
  • The average cost of poor quality data to an average organisation is consistently estimated between 10% and 35% of turnover or operating budget. In over twenty years doing this work, and having worked and presented on three continents during that time, I have only ever seen that range challenged ONCE. And that was by someone who had done the work in their organisation to do a full time and motion study and had found the actual number to be higher again.
  • Research carried out by University College Cork has found that less than 3% of organisations have data that meets basic data quality standards”.

The wriggle room in organisations to absorb the costs of poor data management has shrunk considerably. More importantly, as I have discussed in other blog posts here, and as Anthony discusses in his post on, the old approaches to sticking plaster solutions and collaborative data crisis management will be a lot harder to pull off in an environment where staff are working remotely or (and we can’t ignore this) where key knowledge about the organisation and its data has left the building through layoffs or other terminal outcomes.

Data Leaders will need to step up to the plate in organisations to help drive the change to more mature methods and practices data management so that their organisations can become Information-Enabled and Information Resilient. This will mean paying down decades of people, process, and technical debt in larger organisations. For smaller organisations, it will mean developing (or rediscovering) old skills and disciplines in the dull and arcane arts of information and records management. But it will need to be done in an environment where the appetite for a project with a potential failure rate of 60%-80% will not be there because the buffer to absorb costs will not be there. And organisations that succeed in this will gain a key competitive advantage.

But Data Leadership starts with Data Literacy.

Data Literacy has been a buzzword now for a few years. But the discussion of data literacy has rapidly devolved into a focus on how people can use technologies, conflating literacy with the ability to hold a pencil. This is a depressingly familiar arc.

For many organisations, the data literacy needs to start at a more fundamental level. It needs to start with this not being seen as an “IT” issue or a “technology” issue. It needs to start with business leaders actually getting to grips with what data actually is to their organisations and how it is the basis for value. It needs business leaders to recognise what Peter Drucker said in 1998 when he wrote about how, in the information age, the source of sustainable competitive advantage for organisations would be “the meaning and purpose of data”.

Anthony Algmin’s call to action to Information Management professionals is to build OUR knowledge. However, I believe that the call to action needs to be broader, deeper, and aimed not at the data people (we already KNOW this stuff is screwed up) but at the leaders in our businesses who are all aware that something is screwed up but aren’t sure what it is or how to fix it.

Until we have basic literacy about data, organisations will struggle to develop sustainable data competence or information capability. Without data literacy you can never become Information-Enabled.

Some Homework…

As I help out with my off-spring’s home schooling, I’ve become a fan of setting homework. Here’s some for you, dear reader:

  1. What 5 things do you need to know about to deliver the business of your organisation? What are their attributes? Where are they recorded?
  2. What 5 things do you need to know about to deliver the business of your organisation in THE FUTURE?
  3. What this video by my friend and mentor Tom Redman (“The Data Doc”) and then do a “Friday Afternoon Assessment”  Write down how you did.
  4. Ask yourself: “Do I really know how to fix the problems I’ve just found?”. If the answer is not a resounding yes, get in touch!

Related Insights


Keep up to date with all our latest insights, podcast, training sessions, and webinars.