Whenever I’m asked about specific data literacy efforts that could be going on inside companies to encourage more data-driven cultures, I think of statistics. When it comes to data literacy, basic statistics can help everyone in an organization better understand what data tools actually do with data, so they can better navigate tricky situations and manage ambiguity.

For most organizations, I think of a Statistics 101 course that people can either do internally or externally through open universities or free online programs. 

If your non-technical colleagues go a bit pale when the topic of statistics comes up, it’s easy to diagnose why. Statistics:

  • is based on uncertainty, which is hard for many to grasp
  • is based on math, which has negative associations for some 
  • tends to deal with large, complex systems where many things are going on

And yet, if we as data leaders only train people to use different tools without helping them understand what the tools actually do with the data, it’s much easier for them to get bogged down, or worse, arrive at a very wrong answer. I compare it to sitting a teenager down in a car and expecting them to drive without ever opening a driver’s manual. They may be able to stay on the road for a while, but they are unlikely to know what all the signs mean or how to navigate tricky situations. Statistics give you a grounding of confidence that you can always fall back on. 

Time for a rebrand? 

I've benefited from having statistics when I was at university because I studied psychology. It helped that I went to high school in Germany and learned the basics. Still, I agree that a bit of rebranding would be helpful for people to not feel so intimidated by statistics. And that can start with our own behaviors. If we could, as a collective of leaders, but also of companies and industries, work to make statistics something that's fun, interesting and helpful rather than “having to do the math,” I feel certain that people will feel more comfortable working with their data. 

I’d suggest easing people into improved data literacy with statistics. You can start with the basics, like teaching people the difference between the mean and the median, or why can you do a forecast on one set of data, but not on another one. If people understand these basics, I believe they'll feel much more confident working with data. A sense of unsureness because you’re without the foundations means you’re more likely to shy away from using the tools. But if you feel confident about a challenge, you’re more likely to jump in and work on it.  

Here’s a great place to start, a YouTube channel called MySecretMathTutor, which has dozens of free introductory videos about statistics.