Data fluency: building effective data communication skills

Martha Horler MAUA | Senior Data Management Officer, Manchester Metropolitan University

Data is becoming ever more present and larger in our institutions, but how well equipped are we to understand it and communicate with it?

Data literacy – the ability to understand tables and charts, and to be able to pick out key points from the data, is a growing concern for organisations. However, in a world with ever more data being collected, these skills are no longer sufficient. We need to be data fluent – to have the ability to change data formats, manipulate the data using available tools, and to create the tables and charts required to back up our decision-making processes.

This is not an easy feat. For example, how representative of your university are these common issues:

• People unwilling to engage – ‘I don’t do data’
• Disparate data sources making it hard to bring together and manage – ‘I don’t have access to all the data’
• Data not being captured – ‘We don’t have that data

In a world of increasing volumes of data, universities will need to work to catch up with other industries in how they equip their staff with data skills. This needs to happen on a number of fronts: individual data consumer understanding; data author skills; a data fluent culture and, lastly; an environment that encourages the development of data products. So how can we get to this point? It will not be easy, it will take a commitment to data skills development from senior management, as well as a shift in culture towards data-led decision making. The following skills development for individuals will help:


• Basic training to help staff understand data terminology
• Encouragement of critical analysis of any data products or reports presented; we need to know where it has come from and what can be done with the information
• Training courses on relevant software, Excel/Access, and whatever platforms you operate (Tableau/QlikView, SAS, SPSS for example), and presentation software such as PowerPoint and Prezi

However, raising the data skills of individuals is only the start. The culture of an organisation, and how it reacts to data-led decision making, has a significant impact. Senior managers need to lead
by example, by setting expectations on how decisions are made using data, and supporting staff in the development of their skills. A common vocabulary is also helpful to ensure that any reports or data products use the same definitions – just what exactly does your university mean by the term course or programme? It is also worth considering how you can celebrate effective data usage and promote it.

The ultimate aim for a data fluent organisation would be the setup of an ecosystem that promotes the development of data products by any interested members of staff. This would require an investment in a suite of tools to allow staff to develop products, as well as the required training on how to use them. There also needs to be senior level promotion of these products, possibly including making them available through an inventory system, and an organisation-wide discussion on how they can be used and improved.

The journey to data fluency is not easy or quick, but in a world of ever-growing data reliance it will become an essential aspect of any organisations skill set if they are to succeed.

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