Why a needs assessment is important

A strong needs assessment is crucial to understand business objectives and to ascertain learning needs. It’s also paramount to understanding where gaps exist in your organization and informing you of what needs to change to close these learning gaps to meet the organizational goals.

Why a needs assessment is importantLet’s imagine for a moment that there is a need for a training program at your company or the very least, a new product is being implemented or even there is a need for continuing competency training ( to develop an existing skill). What is your move forward, what do you do?

One example would be to wing it, to have an idea of what employees want, and to start the design process pretty immediately. This is a very spontaneous method of training and although we probably have a lot of valuable information to inform us of what the training program should look like, we all know that training and L&D is not a quick, imminent process so we have to take time to craft it carefully.

The other element we need to keep in mind is ROI or return on investment. If we ask any executive, they will generally ask about how the money spent on a training program will result in improved performance and this needs to be factored into how we structure the training.

This is where the needs-based assessment comes into play and will allow you to understand the full spectrum of needs to give the best payback to your company and keep your leadership team(s) happy

A need assessment firstly gives a starting point of what the learning needs are and what we need to achieve. It could very well be that the HR team needs training on recruitment techniques, or the finance team has learning objectives about upgrading their skills in their financial system.

Why should you care?

It’s our responsibility as learning and development professionals to understand needs and tailor our training interventions to the specific needs of the employees we are responsible for training. Keeping our training content focused and specific to the learning objectives is crucial for engagement and to make sure the ROI (return on investment) or sometimes ROE (return on expectations) is the best it can be.

How do you start a needs assessment?

First off, you need to understand what the business needs are, this can be found out in numerous ways, e.g. your company’s strategic plan or goals, leadership team, documentation, management, etc.

After you have this information, you can start the process of data collection. Once you have done this, you can start to ascertain how the training program will begin to potentially look.

By doing this, the assessment allows you to see what skills and knowledge employees need to know to be more productive and efficient in their roles. This will increase the productivity and profitability of the company and help the business to meet its short- and long-term goals and aspirations.

Related: 3 Steps to an Effective Needs Assessment for Corporate Training 

Qualitative vs Quantitative data

A training needs-based assessment is really about collecting different forms of data to quantify needs and gaps in knowledge and skills. There generally are 2 types of data you can collect, which we discuss below:

  • Qualitative data

    This type of data is very much buried in experiences, emotions, and feelings. A few ways to acquire this information are to utilize methods such as; Focus groups, interviews, observational research, and case studies. The thing I would say about this type of data collection is it is very subjective. Different people use different phrasing and ways of explanation and it can be extremely easy to misconstrue what people truly mean with simple verbal communication. Also, it is possible for people to overly expand their answers which can result in non-concise answers which can be difficult to quantify.

  • Quantitative data

    Quantitative data focuses very much on cold, hard numerical data and facts compared to qualitative data which is more about people's feelings and what individuals have experienced in the workplace. The main ways of collecting quantitative data are conducted via surveys, polls, studies, face to face interviews with specific quantifiable questions and answers, as well as controlled observations. The good thing about this type of data is as it is numerical there is no way for the data to be skewed or manipulated, and you are targeting statistics to give information on performance metrics and analytics.

Let's talk about ROI again

(ROI) or return on investment is an important metric and quite honestly deserves its section of this blog post.

Let’s get one thing clear though, not every organization puts ROI as an important metric but probably should.

Related: Why is it Difficult to Measure the ROI of a Training Program?

ROI allows you to judge the cost variable of a learning program, vs the outcome of increased performance or skill progression of employees.

Basing your training program on hard, measurable skill gaps generally results in more complete and accurate training for staff that actively converts into increased skills and meeting learning objectives which is the main result we are seeking.

If this is your first needs assessment then all this data will be new and you won’t have a reference point to compare, but if you have already completed a similar needs-based assessment then you have clear data to compare, and to judge if the skills gaps have closed over some time, are they roughly the same or the worst result, has the gap(s) widened.

When you can acquire this level and complexity of data, it shines through to executives who can look at this and understand what you are trying to achieve, can see it is tied to the organizational goals, where they will see their return on investment and in essence at the end of the day, justifies the need for a training budget or increased learning and development resources.

If you would like more information on return on investment you should visit the ROI institute who runs a range of webinars, coaching and have a wealth of information about how to calculate ROI effectively.

Make employees feel as though you hear them.

When employees tell you their work woes and frustrations, sometimes it may feel to them that they are not being heard and by extension, the level of staff engagement will drop, this will result in a net negative outcome for you as an L&D professional.

So, what do we do about it?

From an L&D perspective, the answer is simple, a needs assessment.

Working through some of the methods we have spoken about above is important to focus in on as it will engage employees and make them feel a part of the process which is key. If the staff has stated that they want more online learning and the company goes out and purchases a well rounded LMS, staff will feel their needs are being met, and the company is on their side.

Remember though, it’s not just about you, a needs assessment can be advantageous to the management team as well. To be able to make their workforce planning, how their team needs to develop, and also to get the balance right of work and professional development.

A multi-step process

When conducting a training need assessment for learning and training, remember this shouldn’t be a rushed process, you should take the time to absorb the data received and to give you or the L&D team time to understand and analyze what the information means.

By doing this it will give you time to truly comprehend what people’s responses truly mean, and to work out what type of training as well as what the content design may end up like, although this is not the storyboarding process, this is only to understand gaps in knowledge so will give you insights.

What resources are available?

Having  studied copious amounts on the subject myself, I can recommend resources to help with understanding the specifics of needs assessment, and to understand how to formulate one from scratch.

Related: Policy, Data, Oversight, Training and Development

There is a lot of research and statistics on what is required in a good needs assessment but understanding this research and being able to carry it out are very different. The books below can be a great resource to build assessments for your training program.

Here are the recommended books on needs-based assessment:

Check it out
A Practical Guide to Needs Assessment
Buy on Amazon
Needs Assessment Basics
Buy on Amazon

How to conduct a needs-based assessment

As you will know by now, there is a lot of information that goes into creating a needs assessment but there is also a lot of confusion in how to do it. Let’s have a look at the process.

Make sure you set strong learning objectives

Make sure you fully understand what the objectives are for the learning program. Are you looking to increase efficiency, change employee behavior, or raise the competency of a task? Whatever you are trying to achieve, make sure that this is kept in mind as you will be ting back to these goals when conducting and later evaluating your training program.

Check out this video for tips

Understand what the current and desired ability is

This is a big one, and something that gets missed often in needs-based assessments. Make sure you are aware of an employee’s current ability level and compare this to the desired level of competence needed for the task. If this is not done, it becomes more difficult to contrast the differences and what areas you need to focus on.

Evaluate data to produce a pathway to learning

As you know by now, the data collection is pretty much the most important aspect of a needs-assessment. It provides insights and knowledge to a learning & development specialist about how people feel and also hard numbers to back up the non-numerical info. Once this is done, you can then decide on the storyboarding and design phase (our favorite part).

Design and conduct training

Now you’ve got the information and data you need, now it’s time to start planning and designing. Map out your storyboard(s), what the frames and scenes will look like, understand how transitions will work, activities, interactions, etc, as well as any scripts required.

After this phase is completed, we move on to the design where we can use our creative juices to use our authoring tools (eLearning) to create terrific, engaging learning courses and programs to add value to your employees and provide ROI to your organizations.

Once you have finished the design, working with your SME’s, and created your content, now comes the time to roll it out to the staff. How to roll out will depend on the nuances of your company, but you can do this where people take [art one by one, collaboratively, engage in social learning or use a peer to peer approach where employees can learning from each other.

What about the evaluation?

Evaluation is a key part of the process and the planning of how you should evaluate should be included in the needs assessment, but for ease, evaluation techniques will be looked at more deeply in another blog post. You should keep an eye out for the “New world Kirkpatrick model – 4 levels” and also “The success Case method: Robert Brinkerhoff”.

Closing thoughts

If you have a designated training or learning objective to meet, and as an L&D professional it is your job to design and deliver this content, a needs assessment is an important part of the process.

With this being conducted at the very beginning before even starting the design, you will save yourself time, money, and angst and should achieve the best return on investment as well as closing the skills gaps of your company staff and increasing competence.

Feel free to experiment as there is no hard and fast rule of how to do it but use this post as a blueprint for what is necessary and go from there.

Make sure to assess first which should put you in good stead to develop a strong, valuable training program.

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