The Data Language Barrier Is Killing Your Company’s Insights
Data Evangelist, Sigma
Domain experts want to harness the power of data to come up with game-changing insights, but they lack the ability to convey their needs properly to data experts. Data experts want to deliver dashboards and reports that help move the business forward, but are having trouble interpreting the requests of business users.
What is going on here? It’s the data language barrier. In order for companies to get the full value from their data, it’s vital they get everyone speaking the same language.
Alex’s last words were to his caretaker Irene.
“You be good, I love you. See you tomorrow.”
At just thirty-one years of age, his death came unexpectedly. After all, the average lifespan of parrots in captivity is forty-five years.
Alex was an African Grey Parrot adopted by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Over the course of thirty years, she taught Alex a vocabulary of more than 100 words and phrases. He could identify colors, categorize objects by shape and size, add small numbers, and was the first animal to ask an existential question — “what color?” — after seeing himself in a mirror.
Alex was able to use speech to communicate, but he did not understand language. He could make his needs known, convey desires, and make basic requests, but he could only use words for simple utility. Real language mastery enables much more advanced communication to take place and at higher fidelity.
Language Is More Than Just Communication
Every living thing communicates in some way. Ants touch antennae, bees dance, wolves howl, cats meow, and elephants even use seismic tremors, but language is uniquely human.
Humans can take a fixed set of words, and through rules of grammar and syntax create a near infinite amount of expressions that can be comprehended by others. Language allows us to document actions that other humans are able to replicate regardless of their experience. It allows the human race to codify and transfer knowledge so it can be acted on in the future.
This goes far beyond the communication animals are capable of. A monkey may be able to warn others about the presence of a predator, but it wouldn’t be able to help others identify the best possible escape routes in advance.
In addition to helping others understand skilled or complex actions, human language allows us to change the way others think about things. By conveying our thoughts and previous experiences to others through language, we can help them successfully solve problems or navigate unfamiliar situations. We can build empathy that allows others to put themselves in our shoes, understand our problems, limitations, or needs, and influence their behavior and decision making.
The specific language we speak even has the power to shape the way we think about problems. Linguistic relativity has demonstrated that the way we approach problems has been shaped by our mother tongues. The number systems of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Turkish make understanding mathematical concepts much easier than English. Children who are raised speaking those languages consistently outperform English speakers in mathematics.
Given the incredible power language has to shape our thinking and help us exchange knowledge, it’s critical that organizations develop a common language to unify their effort and draw upon the collective wisdom of their workforce.
Data: The New Language of Business
“Accounting is the language of business” is a phrase attributed to billionaire investor Warren Buffet, and in many ways, he’s right. The financial goings on of a company are core to the process of business activity.
But as data and analytics grow in importance within day-to-day operations of departments and teams, data literacy has become lingua franca, a universal language that crosses all industries and functions. Gartner analyst Carlie J. Idoine puts it this way:
As data and analytics become pervasive, the ability to communicate in this language, to becoming data-literate, is the new organizational readiness factor.
Carlie J. Idoine
Data is the common language that everyone in an organization can and should be able to speak. It increases internal alignment, helps teams and departments collaborate, and allows everyone to see how their efforts are moving the needle and contributing to organizational objectives. As Ben Yoskovitz, founding partner at Highline Beta explains, “Data not only helps us figure out what to do, but it helps us understand why we’re doing it.”
By 2025, it’s estimated that 463 exabytes of data will be created each day. But as the volume of data increases, so does the data literacy gap. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the United States ranked 21st out of 23 when it came to data literacy skills.
While companies have gotten really good at collecting and storing data, they’ve done little to spread the language of data. They’re hiring more data scientists, engineers, and analysts, investing in business intelligence tools, and encouraging all employees to be more data driven. But the data language barrier between those in IT who speak it fluently and business users who hold domain expertise continues to inhibit the organization’s ability to get the full value out of its data.
Increasing the amount of technical hires and tools available may increase the amount of communication around data, but real transformation requires everyone to be fluent in the same language.
The game changing insights that everyone so desperately wants to uncover require both technical knowledge and domain expertise.
Mind the Communication Gap
Data now fuels the successful operation of nearly every department and business function. But in most companies, the language of data is spoken by only a select few. This creates a massive bottleneck as the amount of data collected grows and more domain experts vie for access to the data team. The needs of the many are totally reliant on the time and expertise of the few.
When they do get the opportunity to work together, both sides struggle to understand each other. Requests are misunderstood, assumptions are made, work is repeated, expectations are not met, and frustration grows.
The challenge organizations face getting value out of their data is not a technical hurdle, it’s a language barrier.
Business users struggle to convey
Domain experts often have an incomplete understanding of the way data is collected, organized, and analyzed. They make assumptions about how much the data teams knows and what data they have access to. There’s also a tendency to misunderstand or oversimplify the analysis. When they come to the data team with what they think is a simple request, and that request goes unmet, they get frustrated.
Dashboards and reports make it nearly impossible to dig deeper or ask follow-up questions. A curious business user’s only option is to fire off another data request. This often spirals into a game of telephone where work is repeated and time is wasted trying to better answer the initial question.
At times, business leaders grow so impatient with this process they take matters into their own hands. Data is downloaded, Excel docs are created and spreadsheet sprawl ensues. In addition to being a major threat to information security, the results of these rogue analyses are often conflicting due to inaccurate or old data. This only serves to further miscommunication, confusion, and risk.
Business users also feel pressure to know exactly what they want to see in the data in advance. Every request must result in a tangible improvement or insight for it to be a justifiable use of the data team’s resources. Because of the costs, resources, and time it takes to fulfill a data request, business users are reluctant to indulge their curiosity, explore the data and ask questions — the very actions that directly lead to insights.
Data teams struggle to interpret
Those who speak the language of data strive to create clear and accurate deliverables for their domain expert colleagues — reports, dashboards, or answers to questions the business has. But the language barrier prevents them from accurately interpreting requests made to them and their own ability to sell their work to the organization as a whole.
Domain experts are coming to them with abstract problems, undefined guidelines, or vague goals. It then becomes up to the data experts to define the problem as well as work out the solution. But data experts are not the ones that deal with the issue daily or fundamentally understand the nuances of the problem. Without that domain expertise and with the question not adequately defined, the solutions they come up with are educated guesses at best that are only able to address a part of the problem.
Business leaders say that IT’s biggest gap is a lack of business acumen. A 2017 Gartner report revealed that 60% of data analytics projects fail because they weren’t aligned with the business strategy. Because results are not communicated in their language, business users fail to see any tangible benefits or return on the organization’s investment in data science. Inundated with never-ending ad hoc projects that suck up all of their time, data teams are unable to adequately focus on the impactful, high value work they love and sink into report factory limbo.
Bringing More People Into the Data Conversation
While they are indeed speaking two different languages, data teams and business users want the same things:
- They both are looking to provide satisfying answers to business questions.
- They both want to more effectively collaborate with each other.
- They both need to explore data in a way that’s accurate, safe, and easy.
The first step is to build empathy between each group. We develop empathy through exposure, learning the what is involved in the work another person does and building off a shared understanding of both problems and possible solutions. The waterfall approach of chucking data requests over a wall and hoping you get what you need back doesn’t cut it anymore. Business users and data experts have to work together directly.
The second step is to give both sides a way to communicate with each other: a common language. When people can learn and share lessons from data, and then build on each other’s work, innovation is the result. This grows exponentially when teams can explore data across departments, uncovering new connections, trends, and insights.
60% of data analytics projects fail because they weren’t aligned with the business strategy
Just as we expect all employees today to have a basic level of computer literacy, use email, and understand spreadsheets, employees will also need to be able to understand and speak basic data.
Senior Director Analyst, Gartner
In our fast-moving global marketplace, organizations must continually uncover data insights to stay competitive. Sustaining this level of discovery requires giving everyone the ability to explore the data themselves and collaborate together to marry domain expertise with analysis. Prescriptive reports and limited dashboards are not enough. Everyone must speak the language of data.
The Universal Translator
From Star Trek to Dr. Who, a common trope shows up again and again in the world of science fiction: the universal translator. This fictional tool allows anyone to understand and communicate with others in any language instantaneously. Is there a universal translator for data? Yes, and it already exists.
Spreadsheets, in paper form, have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. In digital form, the first incarnation was in the 1970s with Visicalc. There have been all sorts of attempts to kill or replace it since then, but the humble spreadsheet has not only endured, it has thrived. Why is that? Because it’s the one interface that allows people to ask questions, iterate, and collaborate with data.
The great thing about spreadsheets is this: Everybody knows Excel and has it on their PC. It’s available to everyone, needs no training, maintenance or configuration. People understand and are familiar with spreadsheets.
CEO, Testing Times
It’s an interface that’s both familiar and intuitive. 85% of people use a spreadsheet in their work. And even amongst people that understand and use SQL, 88% still turn to a spreadsheet when exploring data.
Our goal is to make the data language barrier a thing of the past. Through our simple yet powerful spreadsheet interface that connects directly to your cloud data warehouse, Sigma enables everyone to join the data conversation, answer questions, and drive insights. It’s the universal translator that allows business users and data teams to benefit from each other’s unique expertise and explore data together.
Are you ready to get your entire organization speaking the same language?