The case for numeracy

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For as long as I can remember, I have known about the importance of literacy. Without being able to read and write, you can only go so far in life. Imagine not being able to read warnings on prescription medicine. You are able to recognize a stop sign, but how could you read a warning sign on a highway? And there are other advantages to being literate.

Literacy will always be important. That goes double in the business world. However, for a long time now, certain departments in organizations have generally turned a blind eye to numeracy. That is, a minority of employees could be innumerate.

HR departments quickly come to mind. In my consulting career, I worked with many HR folks who just didn't "do numbers" and, astonishingly, this was entirely acceptable.

There was an upside, though, at least for me: Because of my proficiency with data and math, their deficiencies often made me appear a bit smarter than I probably am, especially vis-à-vis data and technology. In a few cases, the very problems I was called in to solve wouldn't have become problems had certain employees understood the data implications of what they were doing – and not doing.

In 2014, though, I can't help but think that the days of tolerating innumeracy are quickly coming to an end. Irrespective of one's title, function and actual role, being able to speak the language of data is becoming increasingly important. I for one do not see an end in sight.

Simon says: Nothing stops this train

Software is eating the world and big data is just getting started. So what? Does our tech- and data-centric world mean that everyone now has to be a statistician? Do we all need to break out our probability textbooks and talk chi-squared distributions during meetings?

Of course not. But the person who does not possess at least basic fluency with data, math and the importance of each is limiting his/her career.

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About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of seven management books, most recently Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. In the fall of 2016, he joined the faculty at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business (Department of Information Systems).

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