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Data literacy will make or break your AI strategy

As enterprises look to bring artificial intelligence into the core of their business, CIOs face an increasingly complex set of challenges around making the vision a reality. Historically responsible for driving technology change, they are now increasingly being called on to drive cultural change across the organization as well – a critical step on the path to transformation, according to Gartner.

Where do you start? Data literacy.

Data is at the very heart of AI. The more your organization leverages AI to improve business workflows and processes, the more data-oriented it must become. At a foundational level, that means establishing a culture of data literacy across the entire organization. That is, creating an environment where insights based on empirical data are prioritized over intuition and everyone feels empowered to ask and answer questions with data. In the age of AI – where new technology, data and insights are at the fingertips of even the most non-technical employees – data literacy is an absolute must.

Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations that have turned the corner on data literacy. Here are the four key strategies that guide their approach:

Make data a universal utility

Access to data and critical business insights has traditionally been limited to executive teams and the data experts delivering them. But as AI spreads across an organization, thinking about data like gold and hoarding it only gets in the way. Instead, data should be treated more like water – fluid and flowing throughout your organization.

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Coaxial cables connect to a computer server unit inside a communications room at an office in London, U.K., on Monday, May 15, 2017. Governments and companies around the world began to gain the upper hand against the first wave of an unrivaled globalcyberattack, even as the assault was poised to continue claiming victims this week. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Making data a utility gives everyone the power to make better decisions and create more value for the organization. It’s the cornerstone of any sound strategy for building a culture of data literacy.

Enabling this kind of data accessibility requires multiple changes in your technology stack. At the infrastructure layer, you need data warehousing powerful enough to handle cleansing and processing mountains of data in real time. On the front end, you need an interface like voice or search that makes querying and analyzing the data accessible to non-technical users.

Get the rest of the C-suite on board

Every successful organizational initiative starts at the top. When it comes to establishing a culture of data literacy, securing buy-in at the C-suite level is critical. Without their support, changing an organization’s culture in a meaningful way becomes an uphill battle. The same goes for the executive board. While they have less direct influence over the culture, they hold great influence over the leadership team.

What do you need from them? Patience, support and leadership. They should understand that broad organizational change takes time – but that there’s no time to waste. They should also be ready to join you in promoting smarter, data-driven decision making at every opportunity.

Align with team leads

Once you have C-suite buy-in, work your way down the organizational chart. The goal is to recruit every leader in the company to become an active driver of cultural change. Go to the COO, CMO, CRO and other department heads and have conversations about why data literacy matters to the organization – and their team specifically – and how you are steering these efforts.

You also want to get them involved as early as possible. Instead of following the standard “waterfall” approach to data initiatives, where you try to perfect the technology and processes before rolling it out, take a more agile and inclusive approach. Iterate with the help of team leads to make sure you are incorporating the specific language, processes, and needs of their teams into your data strategy from the start. In doing so, you will have an easier time recruiting the fellow leaders you need to help drive the change you seek.

Always ask for data

One of the best ways to learn a new language is actually using it. Learning the language of data is no different. To make it reflexive, you need to get into the habit of always making a point to show the data behind your decisions as a leader – no matter how large or small. In other words, lead by example.

By that same token, you also need to start asking to see the data behind the decisions your team makes. If you start asking for data – and ask for it all the time – the people around you will start asking for it too. It’s a simple, yet powerful forcing function. In effect, you set the expectation that every decision you make as a leader (both large and small) requires data to back it up.

In the end, it’s important to remember that data has always been valuable. Business leaders didn’t just discover data or its ability to impact their organization. The big change that’s happening today is the plumbing around data – notably AI. Just as the tools and technology are improving, so too must the people who stand to create the most value by using them. As a CIO looking to get moving on AI, the best place to start is your team: establishing a culture of data literacy is the key to making a transformative impact on your business with AI.

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