Bridging the digital divide: We need a smarter approach to data literacy and skills


Throughout the entire history of humankind, there has never been an information explosion like the present. Data is all around us, and it’s playing a pivotal, ever-growing role in our lives and livelihoods – even if we don’t always realise it.

The past year and a half in particular has thrust data into the limelight, with scientists and government officials alike making pandemic-related decisions based on the evidence of data. But it’s infiltrated business too, with companies collecting more data than ever before as they race to transform their organisations and adopt data-driven strategies.

Even in our personal lives, much of what we touch now automatically generates data – spurred by the rise of smartphones, sensors, connected vehicles and appliances, among other digital artifacts. Yet, one has to question if we truly understand data and how best to wield it, which becomes ever more pressing in the wake of the looming digital skills shortage across the region.

The state of affairs in the UAE and the Middle East
There is a colossal transition to and increasing dependence on digital transformation in nearly all sectors and industries across the board. The UAE, a country that predominantly relied on gas and oil to sustain its economy until a few decades ago, has also rapidly shifted to a skills-based economy and has ambitious goals for a digital future. Therefore, enhanced education and upskilling of workers is imperative.

On the flip side, just like the rest of the world, there is a large digital skills shortage in the region which is likely to increase in the future unless all stakeholders recognise the looming threat and take steps to ensure that the Middle East’s data literacy and digital skillset increase in parallel with the growing demands of our world.

Data literacy – more important than ever

Harnessing the power of data is the key to success in many industries, including business. And the abundance of data and its growing complexity requires very specific digital skills. However, unleashing its full potential continues to be a challenge. As per a strategy& report, companies across the GCC acknowledge skill deficiencies in areas such as data analytics and human-centered design.

In the post-pandemic world, data literacy has become an important topic. In fact, 79% of UAE corporations identify a data-savvy workforce to be critical for business success. In this context, it is easy to see why data literate workers will remain at the forefront of the job market throughout the next decade.

Experts believe that digital skills are vital to economic recovery, post-pandemic. And with the growing dependence on data, upskilling to maximise its potential and drive informed decision making will be essential to every organisation. In fact, many companies across the world are already reaping the rewards of this strategy, according to a McKinsey study. However, urgent action is required – as we need a smarter approach to address data illiteracy and digital skills shortages in the region.

Here are five vital steps to help you get smart and close your data literacy skills gap.

1. Data literacy starts from the top

Rather than attempting to establish a data-driven culture from the bottom-up, business leaders first need to understand the state of data in their organisations, and exactly how employees work with data. Only then can leaders identify where best to invest their resources, before outlining clear expectations where everyone knows their role, and how to arrive at the same desired data destination.

2. Equip employees for data-driven working

Data literacy simply isn’t possible if employees can’t access the right data. So, data must be democratised and decentralised – which is once again up to business leaders. But beyond providing access to data, workforces must also be provided with the right tools, processes and methodologies that adhere to pre-defined best practices and enables them to access data as required to meet business goals. Complete with insights that can be easily consumed.

3. Empowering future generations

Supporting data literacy is a problem that requires immediate action, but short term solutions won’t keep the skills gap closed. Business leaders must begin empowering future generations to discover and develop critical data skills, elevating learning experiences of today that are failing to support data literacy. NetApp’s Data Explorers is one such initiative on a mission to address this, with an inherent focus on educating students in underserved communities.

4. Lower data literacy barriers with AI

Educating and upskilling employees is vital to improving data literacy – but they needn’t go it alone. AI can be a powerful tool to help employees better interpret, wield and gain meaningful data insights, especially when working with larger, more variable information sets that simply can’t be processed by the human brain. By doing so – and driving better decision making and streamlining processes – this can also lower data literacy barriers and ultimately make related, essential roles more appealing to the masses.

5. Employee upskilling (and evolution)

Finally, the most powerful asset in creating value from data is your people. Education and empowerment will be the true determining success factors in a data-literate world. So, upskilling with training that’s baked into learning and development initiatives is key and must never become a tick-box exercise. But as the digital and data landscape continues to evolve, with no endgame in sight, the ability of employees must also evolve to equip them with the knowhow and confidence to remain ahead of the curve and seize the opportunities that can be found in data.

By following the above steps, you’ll be well on your way to embracing a smarter approach to data literacy and digital skills. However, that’s not to say the road ahead won’t be without its bumps – and we all must play our part if we’re to truly bridge the divide and realise a data-driven future for generations to come.

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