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Data literacy training: CIOs just got a new job, yippee!

CIOs, if your company has a chief data officer, read no further. But if the “I” in CIO includes data, then your job will be expanding again. Yippee?

Here’s the crux: So-called knowledge workers, or people who create new knowledge by looking at spreadsheets and digging for data — according to one definition I heard recently — are becoming ever more essential to the modern digital enterprise.

The problem is that this level of data prowess is hard to come by in the enterprise. Gartner has identified the lack of data literacy as one of the four major challenges preventing companies from capitalizing on data. So, on-the-job data literacy training is needed to ensure that employees have the requisite skills to do their data-intensive jobs. How does this happen?

At the recent Gartner Data & Analytics Summit, I heard an inspiring story from Jenifer Cartland, who has seemingly figured out how to do data literacy training. Cartland is the administrator for data analytics and reporting at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and the director of the hospital’s Child Health Data Lab. She is also a research associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. And she is one very determined data literacy educator.

A new data regime

Cartland told the audience of data experts that she started thinking about the need for data literacy training at the hospital a few years ago after her team had launched a data analytics initiative underpinned by the concept of self-service. No matter how much data she and her team put at users’ fingertips, however, or what kinds of tools they invested in, efforts fell flat. People either were not equipped to handle the data, or they didn’t know how to operate the system or the training was too complex or too simple.

“We had to step back,” she said to the packed room and laid out the step-by-step actions her team has taken over a two-year period to start righting these data literacy wrongs. Her prescription, which I wrote about in detail here, included surveying users about their information needs and technical data skills; establishing an analytics center of excellence; starting a community analytics blog; offering office hours to “high-need” users; creating a short course in analytics; and developing a seminar series.

Here are two seminal decisions made by Cartland: First, to propose — and be granted the right — to oversee the job descriptions for analysts sent out by hospital departments outside of her analytics organization; and second, to have many of the existing departmental analysts co-report to her organization, the newly formed Analytics Center for Excellence. Setting standards for new analytics hires and establishing a place where “light quants” and “homegrown” analysts from across the hospital system could find a home, be supported, trained and sent out to help promulgate a common language for data, she believes, will prove critical to lifting the quality of analytics enterprise-wide.

Who owns the data?

At the end of the talk, it was Cartland’s co-reporting structure — this notion of her team owning analytics across the enterprise — that piqued the interest of a number of the data executives in the audience. At many companies, a questioner noted, there are struggles about who owns what data and who controls its use. “There’s a lot of politics involved,” he said. How did Cartland pull it off?

One important factor in her ability to take charge of analytics, it seemed, was that the CIO was out of the picture. Cartland said that when her department was formed five years ago, the decision was made to put it under the chief medical officer rather than with the then-CIO (no longer with the hospital), who didn’t want it under his aegis. “Reporting and analytics were not done at all by Information Management,” she said, “so there was a gap for us, relatively speaking, to claim that space.”

That missing-in-analytics IT department recalled a remark that bothered me during the opening keynote of the Gartner conference. The Gartner analysts were extolling the vital importance of the role an analytics leader in the enterprise. In an economy awash in data and driven by data, “speaking data” must become a second language for knowledge workers, or companies will fail. Analytics leaders must take up the gauntlet of data literacy training, because if not them to the rescue, then who?

One of the analysts referenced the annual Gartner CIO survey, noting that for 12 of the last 13 years, CIOs had identified BI and analytics as the CIO’s top priority. “As much as they talk about it, in practice, data and analytics is not a CIO’s top priority,” he said. “Security and infrastructure will always be the biggest fires that the CIO needs to put out.”

That gave this longtime CIO reporter pause. While putting out infrastructure and security fires is certainly a big and important job, data is what’s making businesses go round. All hat and no cattle when it comes to data doesn’t seem like the right fit for CIOs, in particular at companies that do not have a CDO. Better to hire some firefighters and get your head in the data game.

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