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How one company improved its data literacy

All smart businesses these days want to be data-driven. With a shortage of knowledgeable workers, getting to that point can be hard -- but the head of BI at online lender Avant is helping it to do so.

Lots of companies talk about being data-driven, but few actually walk the walk. There's plenty of evidence that suggests companies that use data prominently in the decision-making process perform better than more intuitive organizations. Yet, political challenges and entrenched interests often get in the way of creating data-driven processes across an organization.

But when Charles Whittaker joined Chicago-based online lender Avant Inc. two years ago, he knew that the ability to implement data-driven strategies would be his company's differentiator. According to Whittaker, the capacity to understand lending risks quickly, and more accurately than other credit providers are able to, would allow Avant to take smarter chances and hopefully boost its bottom line. That's why he made it a top priority to ensure all employees are data-literate.

"Everything we do, we insist on data to back it up," said Whittaker, head of business intelligence at Avant. "Every decision you're trying to push through -- it comes down to what data you have to support it."

Boot camps lead to data literacy

Charles Whittaker, head of business intelligence, AvantCharles Whittaker

To accomplish this goal, Whittaker instituted "data boot camps," which are internally run courses that all new hires go through. For some, the classes stop at SQL training and instruction in Avant's internal business intelligence software, which is made by Looker Data Sciences Inc. Whether employees go into marketing or finance, they all complete these week-long courses.

The classes continue for new hires in more data-intensive roles. For example, members of Whittaker's team go through more formal classes in modeling and presenting data. The goal, Whittaker said, is to make sure everyone in the company at least understands what data they have available to them, and what kind of questions it could answer.

"Whether you're an analyst or a lawyer, we expect people to at least be able to request the data they need," he said.

This approach of training workers to understand data is one way to deal with the ongoing shortage of data-literate professionals. It's generally acknowledged that businesses are having trouble finding the people they need to become truly data-driven organizations. But by training everyone from the moment they start, Avant can ensure that its employees have at least baseline knowledge.

Whether you're an analyst or a lawyer, we expect people to at least be able to request the data they need.
Charles Whittakerhead of business intelligence, Avant

Whittaker said this enables him to be more flexible in hiring. He looks for certain skills from people who join his team. For example, he expects all candidates to come in with some SQL knowledge. But he said if a candidate can demonstrate an ability to solve a problem using another tool, such as Python, he will consider that person. The fact that there will be a SQL training class means he can hire more for a candidate's ability to learn and creatively solve problems, rather than a checklist of technical skills.

"We definitely preach hiring the smartest people we can," Whittaker said. "There's no real set of technical skills you have to have."

Forbes watches Avant's progress

By using data as a competitive edge, Avant has made significant strides in just three years of existence. During that time, the company has lent over $1 billion to its customers. And in May, Forbes magazine ranked Avant as one of 25 startups likely to be valued at $1 billion in the near future.

For Whittaker, this success all comes back to the company's investment in teaching data literacy to its workforce. He said the ability to rapidly analyze and act on data is what makes Avant different than other online lenders, and, at least for the time being, no other competitor is making such a large bet on data education.

"There's nothing else out there like it -- where your goal is to just become an expert in data," Whittaker said. "It doesn't seem that creative, but when you look around, there isn't really much like it out there."

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at eburns@techtarget.com and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

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This was last published in July 2015

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What's your strategy for improving your team's data literacy?
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I won't say my approach is the best but what we are doing to improve data literacy of our team is to request that every member of the team bring at least 1 case study to the desk. Also we listed key skill set that must be acquired for every team member
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