Stemming the STEM skills gap

Person manipulating data on a globe
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Ask the Oxford Dictionary for their 2022 ‘word of the year’ and you will see that “Goblin Mode” took top billing. Ask any business, and they will tell you their 2022 was defined by one crisis after the next. The Collins Dictionary took – perhaps unsurprisingly – a more macroeconomic stance and enshrined ‘permacrisis’ as their 2022 word of the year.

Research confirms that we are now not only operating in the greatest period of data generation in history, but also in a remarkably disrupted global economic landscape. A continuation of IDC research, completed by Statista, showcased a huge increase to the volume of data created by 2025 – growing to 180 zettabytes each year. For context, to store just one zettabyte of data would require 41.5 million of the world’s largest commercially available hard drives (24TB). This research noted that just two percent of the data that was produced and consumed in 2020 was saved – and retained – into the next year.

Research firm Gartner confirms this trend, advising in their Top Trends Impacting Technology Providers through 2025 research that balancing “short term planning” with “long term strategy” will be key to staying ahead of “the immediate shocks to the economy and the underlying permacrisis forces shaping business.” Gartner also estimates that – in 2019 - we exceeded one billion knowledge workers globally. These workers are defined as those with a need to think creatively and deliver conclusions for strategic impact and are – clearly – already firmly integrated across lines of business. Organizations now find themselves with the competitive need to act, and the requirement to unlock and enable these knowledge workers through democratizing the analytic process.

Why technology alone cannot solve what is a very human problem

Democratized analytics – the enablement of anyone in an organization to work with, and deliver value from, data - isn’t a short-term solution, and the analytics skills gap won’t be resolved by teaching more people coding. Instead, democratized analytics needs to be looked at as a natural market demand adjustment. The solution to bridging this new gap between data and insight sits with accounting teams, marketing experts, sales leaders, and logistics managers… provided they are equipped and enabled to act.

Just as the Oxford Dictionary learned from their first ever public “Word of the Year” vote, data matters… and bad data can skew the insights you’re looking for. Just as businesses now have an absolute strategic imperative to act on – and mitigate - the impact of this continual permacrisis – so too do they need to consider the human factor.

Speaking pragmatically, business leaders need – and have always needed – insights to drive answers and decisions. The big misunderstanding with the data skills gap today, however, is that the overarching focus has been on the data scientists. Humans have thousands of years’ experience in using technology we don’t understand. You don’t need to know how to build a car from scratch to work in logistics. Technology is only ever a facilitator of the human expertise behind it. In the same way, not all learners need to - nor should - be coders.

At the turn of the millennium, the first true data scientists were the mathematicians, physicists, and statisticians – people manually coding and drawing data from hyper-siloed departments to deliver business insights. Perhaps due to this early visibility in a new field, ‘data scientist’ has become somewhat synonymous with ‘data analytics’. In reality, the need is for knowledge workers in the line of business who can effectively work with data and solve problems creatively – not necessarily employees with coding skills, but people able to effectively use code friendly and/or code free technology who have the context of the business and questions being asked.

Not everyone needs to be able to build the technology from scratch. The solution to this skills shortage is to harness the potential of in-department knowledge workers – enabling them with the data skills and the accessible technology needed to turn their unique expertise into actionable decision intelligence.

Libby Duane Adams

Libby Duane Adams is Co-Founder and Chief Advocacy Officer at Alteryx.

The strategic imperative for change

We’re seeing a huge shift in how business is done, but despite a monumental change in the volume of data to be processed, and a greater imperative to act – and react – at speed, many organizations are still using yesterday’s inaccessible tools to answer today’s questions. While legacy technologies still have a place in business—as we see with spreadsheets used for general administration—they aren’t advanced enough to pull out reliable insights at the speeds needed in this rapidly changing business landscape. It’s not efficient to use a desktop-locked spreadsheet to handle a billion rows of live company data and then process it for insights.

Exacerbating these challenges is the fact that – globally – we are also in the midst of the largest shortage of data professionals in history. Human beings – and human intelligence - are any organization's greatest resource but, without the right skillsets and culture to support and enable them, the hard-won in-department knowledge and subject matter expertise will remain underutilized behind those closed departmental doors.

While the skills gap is the symptom… the real issue is that business leaders don’t have the information they need – at the speed they need it – to make the right decisions. The UK Digital Strategy 2022 estimates that the digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63 billion per year in gross domestic product and this gap is expected to widen. Government data also shows that around 82% of all jobs in the UK list digital skills as a key requirement. What is clear is that we have the accessible technology and the strategic imperative to navigate our own way out of the permacrisis… the missing puzzle piece is the upskilled and enabled human now expected to do the work.

With more data available than ever before and an increasing shortage of skilled knowledge workers to manage it, we are seeing technology go much further when insight generation is democratized to these in-department experts. As the total amount of data created increases exponentially each day, the only way to truly harness its value and deliver recession-mitigating decision intelligence is democratization, accessibility, and automation – putting the right tools in the hands of the right people who want to solve their own problems and have the passion for driving insights with data for the business.

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Libby Duane Adams is Co-Founder and Chief Advocacy Officer at Alteryx.