Management Literacy is Data Literacy

By Peter Davey
March 19, 2021
14min read
Hand writing notes

. There has been a lot of discussion about Data Literacy over the few years. Organisations like Gartner have come out with definitions and models. My colleague Daragh O Brien is doing work on it with the Leaders’ Data Group. But this discussion and positioning of “data literacy” is reminiscent of the discussions of “management literacy” I was enthralled with in my youth.

It’s almost 20 years since I went to business school and much has changed in that time.  At the turn of the millennium, management education and literacy was still seen as almost exclusively the realm of management consultants and investment  bankers. That’s why I signed up! The focus was very much on value creation, measurement and performance management.  However even in the noughties there was a widespread belief that some folk would end up actually working in industry.

The Evolution of Management Literacy

Over my career I have increasingly seen the models and frameworks of the consultant becoming mainstream across organisational management and the mid teens of this century saw the collapse of the Porter-influenced market intelligence firms and Monitor itself for a simple reason. Management literacy has increased to a level that the specialist external resources were no longer required to tell the management how to do their job.  I have often found myself reflecting as  I engaged with CEO’s and Chairs of Boards on the evolution of management literacy and skill. I now believe that if you need an external consultant to identify the internal strengths and weaknesses of your organisation, then perhaps the CEO or Chair’s actual need is more for coaching than advice.  After all, management education is now widely available to teach and train the fundamental models, skills, and frameworks. The leadership challenge is being able to put those pieces together strategically.

Most management thinking and therefore most business, is based round a traditional business model of producing and delivering a “thing”. For business administration graduates these products can be intangible or virtual things. But from an operating middle point of view we don’t really diverge from this fundamental model.  Invest > Produce > Deliver is still the typical simplified business model, largely unchanged over the last 5000 years.  But the technological and data revolution has changed this.

In the data world, it is very possible to reap where you did not sow, at least in the short term. To succeed for the long term, managers will need to be data savvy and data literate.

The Arrival of Data Literacy

Twenty years ago, newly minted MBAs were the “management transformation specialists” who arrived in to fix businesses with applied management literacy. That window closed as management knowledge and skill became more widely disseminated and became mainstream. From the perspective of data literacy we can easily see that opportunity window for “digital transformation specialist” will soon start to close. But for this to happen data literacy must become mainstream.  Just as financial literacy at board and management level has become a pre-requisite for those taking up such positions of responsibility, the same will become true of data.

Too many board rooms still think ‘digital transformation’ is a website, or the purchase of a new shiny technology.  As the world of business becomes increasingly founded on its data assets, those organisations that fail to develop management competencies in key data skills will fail. A primary cause of failure will be the inability to understand foresee the implications of the pivot that is happening. Because just like a CEO needs to know more than the basics of the tools of management, the data leaders of today and tomorrow need to know more than the basics of data management tools.

The Evolution of Data Literacy

Data literacy is in its infancy in comparison to management and financial literacy. It has emerged from technology, library science, research and data management. It has arguably not reached the status of a fully grown discipline in itself.    Until understanding of data flows and landscapes are developed and understood in the a same way as a SWOT analysis or Five Forces model, sub optimum performance will plague organisations. Significant expense will be incurred on data specialist services, failed projects, and general data scrap and rework. We already see this in the high costs of poor quality data (between 10% and 35% of turnover), the low levels of data quality in organisations (less than 3% of orgs have data that is good enough according to UCC), and the stubbornly high failure rates for Information-related projects over the last 30 years (which run in the high 70%s).

If it takes a further 20 years for data literacy to become a standard  part of a  manager’s tool kit, it will be too late. Like nurses, we need data literate managers now!

How can Castlebridge help?

This is an area we’ve been working in for many years. We take a pragmatic approach to the fundamentals of data education for business leaders. We help you understand how to use the tools and technologies to deliver sustainable business value.

Check out some of our other blog posts on the topic of data literacy. And get in touch to see how we can help your organisation.

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