For today’s digital businesses, data can serve both as an input and an output. Data can be an invaluable asset if it is well-managed or a costly liability if it’s not. In no previous decade has data been as integral to business success as it is now. With most organizations engaged in various digital transformation initiatives, data has never been more abundant—or more crucial. And yet, even with all of the data we now possess, you’ll still find most organizations struggling to tap into its full potential. While many are expecting technology—artificial intelligence, augmented analytics, and so on—to potentially close this gap, I believe human beings, not just machines, will play an integral role in magnifying the value we receive from data in the coming decade.
As data becomes more and more democratized, the responsibility for turning data into valuable insights no longer rests solely on the shoulders of your analytics or business intelligence team. Everyone—from Finance to Marketing to Human Resources—can use data to enhance the performance of their functional areas. With a basic level of data literacy and general tool knowledge, curious individuals across your organization can leverage their existing domain expertise and knowledge to uncover meaningful insights in the data. While access to data is improving, the communication of insights still lags behind where it needs to be—even for the analytics and data science professionals who have been typically tasked with this responsibility.
By using dashboards or automated alerts, employees across your organization can be provided with relevant, role-specific insights. When these individuals are empowered to act on these insights, companies will see a beneficial wave of incremental improvements. For example, a marketer could use insights on landing page layouts or promotional offers to optimize the campaigns she is running. However, what happens when she uncovers a slightly bigger insight that demands the attention of others and she alone can’t act on by herself? Maybe it’s a significant customer insight that could benefit her entire team, department or company. To pursue these types of insights, she will need buy-in from other people to secure the necessary resources, budget or coordination of teams.
In these situations, the insight must be communicated to others and explained to them in a way that inspires action—and change. If people don’t grasp an insight’s significance or aren’t convinced of its utility, the insight will fall by the wayside and never drive any value. In these moments, you need to tell stories with your data by visualizing the insights clearly with a structured narrative. Facts and figures alone won’t influence decisions or move people to act, but well-crafted data stories can and will. To form these data narratives, data storytellers will lean on their human creativity, empathy and contextual understanding in ways that can’t be easily replicated by technology.
Recently, I was discussing the importance of data storytelling with a group of analytics professionals. An experienced analyst, who worked for a large shipping company, admitted he was initially skeptical of telling stories with data—until he witnessed how impactful it was within his own department. He was converted when he observed what happened to two analytics managers who were trying to secure internal funding for two separate initiatives. While one of the managers was able to secure a multi-million-dollar investment, the other manager failed to secure the $100K required for his smaller initiative.
Both of these managers possessed the analytical talent to support their recommendations with data, but only one of them was able to communicate his insights effectively by crafting a compelling data story. For this analyst, data storytelling was the determining factor that decided the fate of the two analytics initiatives. Sadly, the unsuccessful initiative may have merited funding but ineffective data communication prevented it from winning executive support. Unfortunately, many good insights are ignored and squandered simply due to poor communication.
Data storytellers can help unlock the value of your data initiatives. In the difficult last mile of analytics, they play an invaluable communication role in helping people to discover and understand key insights, make better decisions and inspire action. While analysts and data scientists can certainly benefit from developing better data storytelling skills, it’s not a skill that is just limited to analytics professionals. As more business people are exposed to data this coming decade, it’s a broader business skill that everyone must begin to add to their repertoire. As data increasingly becomes a core part of everyone’s role and responsibilities, it’s important that people know how to communicate insights effectively.
In the last few years, more emphasis is being placed on fostering a data literate workforce. Many organizations have realized their employees lack the necessary data literacy skills to take advantage of data in their roles. By sharing data stories with others, data storytellers can help nurture greater levels of data literacy across teams and develop a richer data culture. Over time, as these data consumers become more data literate, they may be inspired to craft and tell their own data stories, further extending an organization’s internal data community.
In addition, data storytellers can be valuable change agents as they share insights that drive positive improvements throughout the business. For example, your digital transformation efforts cannot tell their own tales. If you don’t have capable data storytellers, who will highlight their positive impact to the organization? The numbers cannot speak for themselves—they need someone to encapsulate their value and give them a voice.
In 2020, as we enter the next decade of data, you’ll need more people who are fluent in data. Along with increasing the overall data literacy levels of your employees and managers, it’s imperative that your company starts developing a cadre of data storytellers who cannot only find insights but share them in clear, meaningful ways. Eventually, this initial cadre can grow into a vibrant community of storytellers who come from different departments within your organization.
Anticipating this growing need, I recently published a new book, Effective Data Storytelling: How to Drive Change with Data, Narrative, and Visuals (Wiley). In my book, I explore the three essential elements of data storytelling and how they can be skillfully combined to create data stories that are engaging, persuasive and memorable. Besides my new publication, there’s a host of new resources to enhance your data literacy and communication skills from authors such as Nancy Duarte, Alberto Cairo, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic and others.
The more we learn to communicate our insights effectively, the more we’ll be able to reap the benefits that data has to offer. As people increasingly harness the power of data storytelling, minds will be enlightened to new possibilities, valuable data conversations will occur, teams will be better aligned and the path forward will become clearer with transformative insights. Data storytellers will play an integral role in defining the next decade of data, and so will the organizations that cultivate data-driven environments where they can thrive and prosper.
Originally published at Forbes.