Britain faces a major digital data skills shortage in virtually every industry – here’s how to pro-actively tackle the problem

In virtually every industry, the ability to access and work with data and analytics has never been more important, yet the demand for these data skills far outstrips supply. Recent research by Virgin Media O2 estimated that this digital skills shortage costs the UK economy £12.8 billion a year, while 55% of organisations face skill shortages. Respondents to a McKinsey survey say that solving the data analytics skills shortage is a priority focus area.

The digital skills shortage costs the UK economy £12.8 billion a year

For many business leaders, analytics can be the difference between making informed real-time decisions for the business and the risk of being surpassed by competitors who have made digital skills such as data literacy a priority. The unique selling proposition of the world’s most profitable companies is not cash reserves or real estate – it’s their ability to collect, analyse and act on their stored data at scale, and use it to make better, more effective decisions.

Any organisation wishing to emulate these analytically mature businesses and achieve success using their own data is not only being held back by a shortage of expert data scientists but the misconception that hiring more data scientists is the only solution to delivering these insights. They forget that the most significant data-driven insights in history were not delivered by data scientists – but by subject matter experts with hands-on problem-solving experience. A famous example is Florence Nightingale, who used health statistics and mathematics to connect hygiene to better medical outcomes using her problem-solving experience. Doing so helped to revolutionise the medical field and save lives.

How can businesses update their hiring and managing approach?

With this in mind, how can businesses change their approach to hiring and managing talent – by reducing their focus on simply recruiting data professionals and honing in on upskilling the existing workforce to deliver data insights?

The journey begins by empowering current workers

The journey begins by empowering current workers to derive value from data. It doesn’t take much to become competent in the use of analytics in a relatively short space of time.

Here are three steps to help organisations build their way out of the data skills shortage by empowering and upskilling existing knowledge workers to deliver business-changing insights at the speed needed to thrive.

Young blonde woman leaning over laptop on sofa
© Iuliia Lisitsyna

Step 1: Discover and enable your in-department experts

According to Gartner research, by 2023, data literacy will become an explicit and necessary driver of business value. This means, in short, that success is linked to how well employees can “speak data”. Knowledge workers are not only the missing link between data and data scientists, but they also know where the gold is buried. It is far easier to teach an accountant some data analytics skills than it is to teach a data scientist the rules of accounting.

Digitally enabled workers bring nearly immediate business impact. But data is everywhere. For these new data strategies to deliver across all departments, they must involve developing these in-department experts through cross-functional learning resources and engagement to ensure that they thrive and bring the unique knowledge and context they possess to the forefront of the decision-making process.

Part of achieving this goal and delivering the data skills that businesses need today is assessing what resources are contained within each department and how they can be put to best use. For example, a logistics company trying to choose the optimal route for delivery would ask a driver – not a data scientist. While the data scientist is aware of macro trends, the driver knows the micro changes that may otherwise be hidden. Similarly, in manufacturing, a veteran worker on the shop floor can listen to a machine and know if something sounds wrong.

Companies who wish to overcome the shortage of data skills must therefore focus on empowering their existing workers. Giving learning resources and the right tools to people with first-hand experience can deliver greater value. Developing upskilling programmes and democratising access to data can enable these knowledge workers to solve challenges themselves. Unfortunately, our research with IDC revealed that 78% of organisations do not closely match technology investment with the human upskilling needed to deliver more impactful and timely insights.

Given the huge amounts of data generated by any one company, it’s impossible to rely solely on data science teams to generate these insights. Instead, businesses must focus on upskilling existing workers and, when recruiting new staff, look for their ability to ‘speak data’ in tandem with more prescriptive skills. Of course, this does not mean every employee must become a data scientist, but many departments will contain buried insights that are completely hidden from data teams. Finding and generating data-driven insights cannot be the remit of any single team but a mission approached by everyone in the business.

Step 2: Create a new strategy incorporating these hidden experts

Given the data skills shortage, most data scientists do not have the time or capacity to solve every problem they are given. A more efficient use of data experts is to have them provide leadership on data strategies. Meanwhile, in-department experts – knowledge workers who understand the business context and possess diverse perspectives – provide them with support and input on strategic decisions.

These internal experts already exist in most companies. According to Gartner research, more than one billion knowledge workers were in-role globally in 2019. These knowledge workers are paid to think and use the information to inform their ideas… but remain critically underused.

Part of the problem is that most data analytics teams are heavily (or exclusively) made up of data scientists. This gap often leads to a narrow understanding of any problem or solution. Instead, organisations must bring their in-department knowledge workers into the analytic journey. They can do so by developing a culture that enables and facilitates data communication. When this data is collected, analysed and acted upon at scale, it leads to more effective decisions.

Creating this new culture requires three key factors

1. Build awareness and excitement: People need to be excited and motivated to make any change, so help them understand how they will benefit personally from doing so.
2. Deliver training and upskilling: Enable your people to act on that initial excitement by giving them the necessary data skills.
3. Enable success: Once your people understand the value on hand, focus on supporting and encouraging actions that will achieve success.

Step 3: Develop a continuous cycle of learning and improvement

Tackling Britain’s data skills shortage is a journey. Developing digital skills and data literacy comes down to how business leaders engage these domain experts – allowing them to lean into this analytic opportunity, discover new use cases, and deliver specific end results through a continuous improvement cycle.

While companies often look outwards for technical solutions, the key component to successfully developing a broader data-literate workforce comes from within.

1. Encourage and expect all data workers to go on this journey rather than just arming data scientists with siloed technologies.

2. Balance the stress and challenge by having fun with the task. Use tools like Datathons as fun ways to take on a challenging problem and develop team-oriented ways to solve and learn from each other. Data Analytics is a team sport with many ways to solve problems that are best found with diverse teams.

3. Make failure safe as well. Use sample datasets and virtual landscapes to test ideas while navigating any bumps and potholes along the way.

4. Scale these steps across the entire organisation and every department – after all, data analytics drives insights for all of the business. Invest in adoption programs, internal social networks, training, and user sessions to empower the organisation to build a data-driven digital culture.

Any company wishing to tackle its data skills shortage must focus on the journey: utilising, upskilling, and enabling the experts they already employ to support current data science teams. This will deliver more insights faster and truly benefit the organisation.


Written by Libby Duane Adams, Co-Founder and Chief Advocacy Officer at Alteryx


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