Where do you stand on data literacy versus data fluency? And is a debate on their definitions and meanings worth having? Or should we focus on building confidence in data skills?

Although I used the term data literacy before coming to my current company, it was interesting to see that JLL uses the term data fluency. I completely understand why, since data fluency may be considered a little less intimidating than literacy, and those who haven’t completed data literacy training are unlikely to enjoy calling themselves data illiterate. But are the two terms in fact matters of degree? 

You could argue that data literacy represents a working understanding of the techniques, terms and concepts of data, while data fluency’s definition is the ability to turn data into stories. Here’s an example through the lens of language itself.

Sprechen Sie Data?

To make the argument for data literacy in the past, I tended to think of data not as a first language but as a second one. When I was in school I enjoyed learning German very much. Of course, I grew up in the UK, so I was only taught to a level of what I would call literacy. If you were to ask me, "Were you fluent in German?" I would say, "No, of course not.” I had skills in German, but I was far from fluent.

If I wanted to get better in German, I would have no hesitation in taking a course called German Literacy, German Fluency or German Skills. I think of that analogy in terms of data as well, and it’s why I’m a big advocate for using the term “data skills.” This is my personal opinion, but I think data skills have a wider remit. 

I also think that asking people if they want to learn data skills or take data skills training is an easier sell. Offering a data literacy or data fluency training program might lead people to question, “Do I need this?” But by promoting that we are here to help people increase their data skills, we can appeal to anyone in any role or persona to improve and become more confident with data so they ultimately can make more data-informed decisions.

Training data confidence

Whatever you call it, data proficiency, literacy or fluency, it’s all a matter of semantics until people are operating with confidence using data. Or as a colleague said to me quite recently after a data skills session I led, “Thank you for making data less scary.” Enabling this kind of confidence in data includes building several skills that go beyond technical tools:

  • talking to your internal or external clients and asking them the right questions to uncover what they’re trying to identify using data
  • evaluating what you create based on the value it will bring and the analysis that you need to provide to generate that value (here I often use the analogy of the kind of data you might need to gather to buy or lease your next car)
  • encouraging curiosity to make your end-users explore; for example, to go beyond a figure and delve into trends

As with the journey from literacy to fluency (and the continuous addition of data skills), operating as a data leader to make data part of a thriving culture is all about encouraging people to go one step further. That should be part of everyone’s job description.