Insights Blog

The ‘reskilling revolution’ needs enterprise and education to work hand-in-hand

Data skills

As a wave of technical bootcamps are announced to upskill the UK in digital proficiency, Exasol’s Chief Data and Analytics Officer Peter Jackson explores the importance of data literacy in creating better businesses and societies. The blog covers: 

– The role of education
– Why everyone deserves basic data literacy
– Why data democratization matters 
– How businesses can help

We are on the brink of a ‘reskilling revolution’, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). The new jobs emerging in the global economy will require a different set of skills, more in-tune with the digital era. As a result, the demand for workers with specialist data skills, like data scientists and data engineers, has more than tripled since 2013. 

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 needed to meet this demand. These ‘D/NATIVES’, as we’ve coined them in our latest survey, are often lauded for their technical skills over older generations.

According to our research, 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.

While this is promising, just 43% actually consider themselves data literate. As such, there is work for educators and business leaders to bridge the data literacy gap. Change is on the way, in the UK at least, where the government has pledged £36m of funding for a series of technical bootcamps designed to boost digital and other technical skills and inject a new wave of skilled individuals into the workforce. But it’s important to consider all the other ways we can promote and improve data literacy – helping anyone, at any age, to embrace the power of data and create not just a productive workforce but also a richer society.

Education, education, education

Over the last 30 years, schools have recognized the need to teach pupils core IT skills, aiming to help them become ‘computer literate’ and able to use Microsoft Office, send emails and build simple websites – among other things. But just as life and technology has moved on, so has the need to impart a new kind of knowledge to young people. I argue that ‘IT’ needs to be expanded to ‘IT&D’ – Information Technology and Data. 

Data – how we collect it, how and when we give it away, how it’s used and the potential it has to allow us to make different decisions – is a crucial part of our everyday lives. In order to make sure young people are aware of the context, opportunities and risks surrounding data, the Loading...data science industry needs to work with schools to develop a curriculum around logic and data interpretation, looking at algorithms, decision-making and how to draw conclusions from the vast amounts of data we now have access to.

Data accountability

Beyond school and into working life, people’s exposure to data will grow, and as well as the many benefits this brings, so too does the element of risk. It’s vital to educate people how important it is to protect and be aware of our own responsibilities around data collection and data sharing. 

It’s common to see a sense of paranoia and caution around the technology. This has arisen largely from companies gaining access to our personal data. Concerns about ‘Big Brother’ and technologies like facial recognition or behavioral targeting are rife. Often people who hold such concerns also unknowingly leave themselves open to real risk by sharing personal data on platforms such as Facebook and TikTok.

The truth is that there is a value exchange at the heart of most data transactions: often it’s useful information for a service or provision. We need to educate people about the positives of this and remove the paranoia, while teaching people how to protect themselves from nefarious uses.

The business of data

The other part of the data democratization puzzle lies in how businesses use data, and more importantly, how they can teach all of their teams to understand and use it effectively in their work. 

For businesses wanting to sell products or services to customers, data can be the key to powerful storytelling. It can tell us what products customers like best, highlight industry trends and uncover website or marketing weakspots. Understanding all this can help inform the ways in which businesses communicate publicly.

No matter what sector a firm is in or the customer base they serve, data can be used to tell a story which resonates with that audience. Insurance firms can drum up business by talking about life expectancy or the likelihood of having a car accident. Retail firms can engage with young, fashion-mad consumers by explaining how data is the reason why they know what color denim or what sizes need to stock in their stores or online.

In order to tell these stories, businesses must recruit and train people with different skills to maximize the value and longevity of the data and the stories they tell with it. 

A part for everyone to play

Data literacy can also improve individual employees’ self-confidence and broaden their skillsets. Understanding the spectrum of data and how many skills, traits and personality types are needed to fully unlock its potential helps us to remove the self-imposed barriers around what we know and what we understand. No matter what your skills are, data can be accessible and meaningful for you.

At Exasol we talk about the DIKW triangle: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom. In sweeping terms, ‘numbers people’ sit at D and I, and ‘words’ or ‘creative’ people, as well as subject specialists, sit at K and W. Combining a mix of people and their different skills and abilities only makes the translation of data more powerful. Numbers people can extrapolate the figures; creative people can tell the story and visualize the conclusions.

Businesses, just like schools, have a responsibility to educate – to upskill their employees with a broader set of talents and an appreciation of how data fits into their personal toolbox. The ultimate goal is to create a world full of citizen data scientists, all able to consume, analyse and translate the information at their fingertips – and use that knowledge to improve their choices, their decisions and their achievements.

Peter Jackson is Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Exasol. He started his career as a business analyst before transitioning into software development. He’d later become the first Head of Data at The Pensions Regulator, the first CDO of Southern Water, and the first Group Director of Loading...Data Science at Legal and General. Jackson then joined forces with Caroline Carruthers to write The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook and launch the CDO Summer School.