One of the undoubted highlights of Qonnections 2018 was Jordan Morrow’s keynote speech on Data Literacy and after attending one of his breakout sessions on the subject we all walked out into the Florida sun full of inspiration. Jordan is the Global Head of Data Literacy at Qlik, the man tasked with taking on one of the key issues of our time, but what exactly is data literacy and why is it so important?
Working as a consultant I get to see a variety of businesses and whilst no two companies are ever the same one of the key concerns that frequently comes up is “culture.” It’s perhaps not the best word to use but what they mean is that as well as a consultant’s technical skills they are interested in their experience of changing a business’ relationship with data. You can put a shiny new dashboard in front of someone and find that even with the most intuitive of designs there can be varying levels adoption, even trust in the data. In a world seemingly saturated with data we haven’t equipped ourselves as a society to understand and make use of it. Therefore, Qlik have taken up the challenge of spreading Data Literacy. It’s a challenge that’s as fascinating as it is difficult. I knew I had to grab a word with Jordan and arrange an interview for the blog so you could hear it from the person who knows it best, but whenever I saw him at Qonnections there was a queue of people wanting to quiz him further, or was it just because of his socks?
Luckily, we found some time recently to have a good chat and after discussing the lengths we go as parents to keep our kids entertained (“sure we can go see the old Curious George movie” – abandons all hope of ever seeing the new Black Panther film) we move onto the subject that rivals his affection for trail running in Utah. The transcript is below and whilst I’d only intended to use the recording to help with this I think it’s really useful to hear Jordan’s passion for yourselves, so I’ve uploaded the main bulk of the audio I worked from. Enjoy.
For those who’ve never come across the term before, can you explain what data literacy is?
Happy to. From a technical definition that we utilise data literacy is the ability read, work with, analyse and argue with data. But, to put that into common or simple terms it’s the ability to consume data to help make effective decisions; that ability to utilise an organisation or individual’s data to make smarter decisions.
A lot of other companies won’t have a role such as yours so how did you come about your unique role?
(Laughs) Yeah it’s kind of an interesting story that led me here. So, actually, about 4 or 5 years ago I was at another corporation, a big word-wide corporation, that dealt with credit cards and financial services and I had a vision at that time that we should be teaching people how to do analysis better. I was actually told “no”. Then over time my job and responsibilities shifted so I started looking for a new job and Qlik had a job that originally had a title something like Analytics Curriculum Developer where my job would be building curriculum to teach people how to do analytics better which is what I wanted to do anyway! So I was like, yeah, I want to jump all over this! This was even before data literacy became a big term. If you Googled it you probably wouldn’t have found much on it, so we here at Qlik got a head start on it and we said, OK, we want to own this. Then over time we found power in it, I did more and more, and I essentially became the Global Head of Data Literacy. You’re right, most companies don’t have any position like this. My boss and I we had a vision and we saw a need; that people need to be able to use data effectively and this was a part of the data science and data world that had not been tapped into. So we just went full steam ahead and decided we want to own this, we want to do this and thankfully the stars aligned for us. It is a big buzzword but it’s not going to go away because everybody needs skills to effectively consume data in the world today and we are now seen as leaders in that world because (laughs) we guessed right I guess you could say.
Yeah, that’s brilliant! I guess that was reflected at Qonnections where Gartner were presenting as well and they were so thankful that Qlik were picking this issue up.
Yep, exactly. One of things for me is when you start to see Gartner (our industry analyst) talking about this, and I had actually spoken with them about a year ago just talking about what we were doing, when they say they are grateful that Qlik is doing this you feel validated. You feel like we’re doing something right because the industry analyst is saying this is a big need.
So how do you think we’ve ended up in this position? I guess if you compare it Moore’s law, the fact that computer power is growing, we keep hearing in the media new computing terms like machine learning and AI and yet data literacy seems to have flat lined.
Yeah, so the reason I think it happened is, I think there was a confluence of 3 main things that helped drive it and to your point that’s Moore’s law; how much data we’re producing in the world and we’re producing it so quickly it’s not like human skill is keeping up with that. That’s one issue. I think the digital transformation of everything is the other and self-service analytics or the democratisation of data, giving it to everybody, whereas historically it wasn’t given to everybody right? It was maybe in the IT world. Those 3 big things drive that need to have data literacy but the reason why we did a big survey, and only about 1 out of 5 people felt comfortable saying they felt data literate, is for years we forgot the human element. We’ve always been so excited to launch new software and applications, new this new that, the shiny new object, then we would train people how to use that object and we would forget the fact most people are not going to university for a degree in mathematics. Most people are not going to university for statistics. So here we are doing these self-service analytics platforms all over the place, “you need to use analytics, you need to use data,” but we forgot that most people aren’t trained to do that. So lo and behold we have a massive skills gap because we just forgot that! I think we finally got this point with organisations everywhere saying “there’s a lot of data, we need to use it” but they don’t have a workforce that’s prepared for it because we kind of forgot that element for years. I do think that’s one of the reasons that the stars aligned for our programme here at Qlik, that over time it had to happen. The way that organisations are now using data but most people don’t have the skills to do it – something needed to happen and we grabbed hold of that to build our programme.
I’ve noted down 3 things that I see as blockers to data literacy and I’m interested in your thoughts on them. The first is almost a data literacy gap in that you have these huge companies, people going to conferences and everyone’s pushing this cutting-edge technology yet the reality is for a lot of smaller companies, and especially the public sector over here, they don’t have that kind of investment. I guess there’s a fear of technology and a fear that they’re never going to catch up. Do you ever see this?
I think that’s a big part of it. I think there’s a fear of catching up but also a fear of the unknown. Businesses get very comfortable in the way that they do things. Then all of a sudden this data revolution has really come up quickly, that’s part of what has been different about this latest industrial revolution, how fast it’s coming and transforming. So organisations, to your point, they probably don’t feel like they can catch up but they also have this fear of the unknow; like how can we even do this? It’s moving so fast? So, absolutely, I think that’s a part of it. I think they have years and years of history and then all of a sudden BOOM and this is happening so quickly they don’t know what they can do. This is actually one thing I speak about when I go to organisations. I say look, you don’t have to change your culture to match what’s happening, you need to weave what is happening into your existing culture. That, I think, put’s their mind at ease but if you don’t have someone coming along to help you see that, to your point, there’s a fear and it slows that progress down.
You’ve just touched on my second one there, which is culture change, or a rather a reluctance to change. “This is the way we’ve always done it and it works. Why do we need to catch up?”
Yep, I think you’re spot on. I think there’s 2 things There’s that stubbornness or the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality and then also there’s this big fear, how do you change corporate culture? I jokingly ask quite often “ow easy is it to change a corporation’s culture?” Most people just laugh because it’s very difficult. That’s when I take a step back and I say to them “well that’s not what we want to do. We don’t want to change your culture. We need to weave data usage and data literacy throughout the existing culture.” I do think those are the two things. People get caught up the way we’ve always done it mentality and on top if it they don’t feel they can change corporate culture. I don’t like the word change in that case because you’re not trying to change, you’re trying to evolve. That’s a better term to use because if you try to change it that’s going to put up roadblocks but if you try and evolve it that’s a different story.
That’s an interesting point about the language you use to try and bring people in. The last thing I’ve noticed, though it’s something I hadn’t really recognised until you mentioned it at Qonnections, is data fatigue. You mentioned fake news and the fact that people are almost sick of experts.
Yeah absolutely. One of the things I like to discuss when I’m speaking is that we want to create a world of data sceptics. What I mean by data sceptic is someone who is willing to question the data and get to the answers but what is happening when we see things like fake news, or Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is we create a world of data cynics. That’s that data fatigue, that people are sick of it. They become very cynical when someone gets on the TV and says “I’m a data expert” and I think that’s because of all this fake news. And rightfully so! To some extent I can completely understand. When you see something like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook I can see why people would become cynical and negative towards things. That’s why I think data literacy has such a big mission, not just in the corporate world but in people’s lives. It enables them to get past the cynicism and to embrace data in an effective way that 1. gives them a skill set for the future and 2. makes them more intelligent when things do come on the TV because if you’re data literate you can ask the appropriate questions. You can get to the right answer vs just being fed what could be fake news. It’s an interesting time. I think there are opposing forces. The negative side is the cynicism and data fatigue because there is a lot of junk out there but I do think there’s a bigger, greater force on the positive side which says using data effectively makes you more powerful. It’s interesting to watch those things compete right now.
I just wanted to see what Qonnections was like for you? Speaking to a lot of people there, their favourite sessions were the data literacy ones.
That makes me smile of course! Qonnections was amazing. It was a whirlwind for me because basically Tuesday to Thursday were all the session and from sunup to sundown whenever there was a breakout session scheduled I had one. I think I had a total of 13 breakout sessions, 1 roundtable and then I did the mainstage keynote. Being on the mainstage gave validation to what I was doing. The fact that we were sitting up there with both Garter and Rahul of MIT talking about data literacy, having the sessions and the attendance at those session, it was amazing. I don’t really have words. The feedback and the excitement around everything we were doing, everything was just overwhelmingly positive and enjoyable. It hasn’t slowed down since. My boss, jokingly, was like “get ready because after Qonnections it’s not going to slow down” and he was right because I’m getting asked almost on a daily basis if I’m willing to travel somewhere and speak about this. I’m just trying to make sure I stay on top of it to keep it going.
I noticed the queue of people after each session wanting to grab you for a quick chat. It was very telling.
Yeah (laughs). Agreed!
If I’m a company chair or a Head Of and I want a piece of the data literacy action where would you point someone for resources on the subject?
One of my favourite parts of the programme I’ve built is it’s essentially at no cost. There’s only one piece that has any cost to it. I’m a big believer that there’s a lot of social good that comes from this so we’ve made a lot of the learning modules and everything free. The place to go is Qlik.com\getdataliterate. If you go to that site that’s where everything is. Just like I tell organisations you need to evolve and be iterative that’s how my programme is. I’m going to be continually adding material. I’m actually going to be adding a strategy framework, that organisations can download, on how to implement data literacy. One of the biggest questions I get is how can I put this stuff together in my organisation. I created a document where an organisation can take it, adapt it and implement data literacy and there’s no cost. They just download and go. I’m going to be adding 6 new learning modules by the end of the year. Anything from technical training in data literacy to non-technical like how to tell stories with data. I also tell people to jump on LinkedIn and connect with me and to also do that on Twitter because I’m very active there. I like to share my thoughts on data literacy and things I find important or enjoyable whether it’s in the world of data analytics, business or career paths, etc.
Fantastic, I’ve noticed the data literacy certification on the website as well.
Yeah so it’s a data analytics certification and I’m going to keep that free as well. There’s no cost to register and take it. We wanted to create this stamp of approval for individuals who felt they were making progress in their data journey to have a data analytics certification that they could take and we’ve had a tonne of people taking it since we launched at Qonnections so it’s been fun to watch.
Final question from me, what does Jordan like to do when he’s not saving the world with data literacy?
(Laughs) I am a dad of 5 children and that right there is the most enjoyable thing but I’m also, as we talked about at the beginning of our call, a passionate trail runner. I’m always running in the mountains and doing ultra-marathons. I’m a big believer in trying to push and see what my body is capable of doing so I love to train hard and to learn how to read the data, you could day, of my physical fitness. But family, religion or those things and I love being in the mountains. You could call that a second religion right! Being up there and getting a new perspective on the world. There’s a very different perspective of yourself when you’re sitting on top of a mountain peak looking down at a city and you realise just how small you truly are in the grand scheme of things. It’s a humbling thing to do.
Totally. Do you do anything with your running data?
To a degree yeah. I track it pretty extensively. Every run I track. I follow it to make sure I’m getting enough vertical training because when I do ultra-marathons, you know I live in Utah in the Rocky Mountains, you have to get enough vertical gain. You have to be travelling at enough altitude, so I like to be able to track that so that when it comes time for race day I’m not falling over or passing out. So, I definitely track my miles and vertical gain.
In a way that brings it back round to data literacy because if you think about the amount of people who use Strava and other such apps to record their fitness that’s potentially a way into data literacy.
Yeah. I think one of the things that put fear in people’s minds is they think they have to be a data scientist, but I would argue most people do not. But everyone needs to be data literate and most people don’t realise they’re more data literate than they think they are, to exactly what you just said. You use Strava or another app that grabs your running data. When you buy a house you’re looking at different interest rates and lenders. When you fill up your tank in your car you’re looking at following the data on when your gas tank is going to empty. We’re dealing with data all the time but I think people used to associate data with mathematics, which is a big part of it, but most people are more data literate than they even know.
Thank you so much for your time Jordan. It’s been fascinating.
No problem. It’s been a pleasure.
I’m going to follow up this post with another one shortly which will contain links to data literacy resources so please keep an eye out for that. In the meanwhile, you can find Jordon on Twitter at @analytics_time