The Importance of Data Literacy – from a DND/CAF Perspective

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“What is data literacy?” you may ask, and “Why should I care about data literacy in a defence context?” In this blog, I will share some of what I learned during my experience as the lead for Data Literacy & Culture at DND’s ADM (Data, Innovation, Analytics) and some of my own reflections related to these questions. Data is everywhere! If we know how to harness it, it can be powerful!

As is a common experience for military personnel, I have periodically moved around to different positions diving into a variety of different subjects.  It certainly keeps things interesting and the brain flexible!  After several years working in the training domain of data & analytics, I quickly switched to a very different area of training this past summer at the new Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture (CPCC). I can recall wondering what I would do with all the new knowledge I had acquired over the past few years, as I quickly switched focus to a new area.  This blog is a small effort to hand off, to you dear readers (& colleagues), some of what I learned working in the domain of data & analytics training, from my own perspective.  

According to Statistics Canada (2019), “Data literacy is the ability to derive meaningful information from data. It focuses on the competencies involved in working with data including the knowledge and skills to read, analyze, interpret, visualize and communicate data as well as understand the use of data in decision-making. Data literacy also means having the knowledge and skills to be a good data steward including the ability to assess the quality of data, protect and secure data, and their responsible and ethical use.”

IN DND/CAF, some impressive early efforts and achievements by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) began to take hold in the areas of data & analytics, some of which were highlighted in 2018 in the linked video “Member Story: Royal Canadian Navy,” as presented to the America’s SAP User Group (ASUG). In the same time-frame, the governmental Report to the Clerk of the Privy Council: A Data Strategy Roadmap for the Public Service was published with a long-term vision of increasing data literacy, managing data as an asset, creating a data-driven culture, and governing data. 

In 2019, DND’s ADM (Data, Innovation, Analytics) stood up and published DND/CAF’s first Data Strategy.  Four pillars were described within the strategy, including: 1) Data Management; 2) Data Tools & Environment; 3) Data Literacy & Skills; and 4) Data Culture. The stated goal of the strategy, specifically in terms of data literacy & skills, was to “create a data-literate and skilled workforce capable of using data to create value for DND/CAF.” From my own experience, I know that much effort is ongoing towards achieving this goal.

Data literacy is the foundation of preparing our people to advance towards a more modern military; one that further optimizes the use of digital, analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.  

As a Training Development Officer, I have reflected on what aspects could/should we be working towards within military training to prepare our people for future operating environments that rely on data in new ways? Some that, perhaps, we can not yet even imagine.

The Canadian School of Public Service (CSPS) Digital Academy and the Government of Canada Data Community, in collaboration with various government departments, spearheaded the creation of a Data Competency Framework for the Federal Government. This consists of 21 competencies over 4 categories including: 1) concepts and culture; 2) data governance, collection, & stewardship; 3) analytics & evaluation; and 4) data systems and architecture.

Making use of this framework, as well as developing and/or making use of training content being developed to support these competencies, within the Defence Team, would be a great start. Training on defence-specific present-day uses of data and related tools would be a great next step. Exploring and then communicating the art of the possible in terms of future optimization of business and operational data within defence should be on all our minds in order to keep pace with our allies and, also, our adversaries.  We must develop internal subject matter experts who understand the complexity of domestic and operational environments, but who also have the data literacy and skills in order to derive maximum value from the data we presently collect, and also understand the value we could derive from data in the future if it were to be collected and analyzed. 

In terms of business data, we must be able to effectively access, visualize, and display our data. We must be able to interpret trends and to report on performance (such as required from the Defence Results Framework (DRF)). In terms of operations, command decisions should be made taking into account relevant, available data.  Support staff should be able to collect and manage data, read data, evaluate its reliability, and present it to the Commander, either visually or verbally, in an understandable way (aka. data visualization & story-telling). Commanders must understand the value of data.

In a war-fighting context, to quote LGen (Ret’d) Mike Rouleau when he was the Vice Chief of Defence Staff, “the next kinetic fights will punish military forces who remain analogue at their core,” therefore, “…we surely owe the next generation the intellectual and pragmatic down-payment of smartly progressing into a digital future.” Wise words. Moving away from “analogue” and advancing into this desirable “digital future” requires us to embrace a data culture and work towards increasing the Defence Team’s data skills and knowledge.

The Defence Team, globally, must work to enable evidence-based decision making in order to progress into a data-driven and digital future.  As stated by General Wayne Eyre, who was Commander of the Canadian Army at the time, in Advancing with Purpose: The Canadian Army Modernization Strategy, “The Canadian Army must harness data and embrace digital culture to benefit from their potential.” Indeed!

What will you do to enable your teams to be ready for the future data-driven workplace? What will we do to ensure that the Defence Team will be ready for the future data-driven fight?

References

America’s SAP User’s Group. (2018) Member Story: Royal Canadian Navy.

Canadian Army. (2021). Advancing with Purpose: The Canadian Army Modernization Strategy.

DND. (2019). The Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Data Strategy

Rouleau, M. (2020). VCDS/DMA Planning Guidance and Digitization, VCD2020-0015391

Statistics Canada (2019). Data Literacy Training.

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