Bridging the existing data literacy gap in Southeast Asia

EXCLUSIVE: We spoke to Samir Bedi, Partner, People Advisory Services, EY, on what it takes to build a data-literate workforce.
By: | June 3, 2020

Digitalise or die. That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic and it is even more true today. Remote working has become a new reality for the workforce and digitalisation is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but a ‘need to have’.

As organisations scramble to keep up to speed with the demands of having a remote workforce through new technologies, are their employees equipped, trained and data-literate to implement and fully maximise data-driven capabilities? Apparently not, especially in Southeast Asia, which is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. In fact, its workers might not have the sufficient data literacy skills to keep pace with the speed at which it is growing.

In Singapore, considered one of the most advanced countries in the region, more than eight in 10 employees (84%) are not fully confident in their data literacy skills and feel overwhelmed or unhappy when working with data, according to a study of 1,000 Singaporean employees by Accenture and Qlik, titled “The Human Impact of Data Literacy”.

The study also found that the gap between Singapore companies’ aspirations to be data-driven and their employees’ ability to create business value from data is costing S$5.1 billion in productivity annually, due to procrastination and sick leave that stem from stress around information, data and technology issues.

But firstly, what does it mean to be data-literate and what is required to build a data-literate workforce?

Speaking exclusively to HRM Asia, Samir Bedi, Partner, People Advisory Services, EY (ASEAN Workforce Advisory Leader) explained, “Being ‘data-literate’ means having the ability to understand, analyse, work with and ‘argue’ with data.

“A ‘T’ framework is required to build a ‘data-literate’ workforce. This includes first ensuring they have deep domain knowledge on how to best do their daily job, and then a broad understanding of how the use of data could apply in that job. Implementing this framework for the usage of data across the organisation will mean relooking how work is being done to enhance productivity, which also means both the removal of inefficient tasks and creating a new set of tasks that traditionally weren’t there.

“Enhancing data literacy will require the efforts of an entire ecosystem. The government should be able to propel the need for a data-literate citizen profile. Employers need to instil the use of data into everything that they do and implement learning programs in their own organisations. Employees need to have an open mindset regarding working with data and not shy away from using it to make decisions. Lastly, unions, trade associations, chambers and learning institutes also play a key role in shaping the right learning programs for all of this.

“But at the end of the day, it does come down to the employers to play the biggest part, because that is where most of the learning – which is on the job or with some time allowed off the job – happens. Businesses are the schools of tomorrow,” he added.

While investing in digitalisation and data literacy training is probably the last thing on the minds of organisations during this pandemic and economic crisis, the cost of not investing could be more significant in the long run as it’s no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘need to have’.

And Bedi believes that business and HR leaders have a crucial role to play in transforming their workforce into one that is data-literate, which will in turn benefit their employees’ careers and standard of living.

“If businesses do not wish to invest in workforce transformation or data literacy right now, they must then consider how long they can be sustainable and deliver outcomes to customers in non-digital or non-data driven formats. It comes down to what is the business goal, the two to three-year business plan, and where does data or technology sit within that,” he said.

“Leadership – CEOs, heads of HR and heads of business functions – must stand up and say that continuous learning and workforce transformation is the new business fundamental and way of operating that organisations must implement and adopt. The message from the top, that this is not a ‘nice to have’ but something we ‘need to have’ to stay sustainable or get a competitive edge in today’s environment, is crucial.

“For HR, this involves having frequent conversations and working closely with business leaders to understand how technology and data is affecting or potentially transforming business outcomes. HR can then determine the quality and quantity of skills required and put the right learning interventions in place. This is what workforce planning and job redesign is all about.

“It’s key to think of HR not as a support function, but more of a business function that helps get business objectives delivered – through the workforce, while helping the workforce enhance their careers and improve productivity.

“Organisations must be ‘employee-first’ and foster a cultural shift, where employees understand that workforce transformation and data literacy will make their jobs easier, better and more productive, and this eventually will enhance their careers and standard of living,” he concluded.