If you have spent any time as a learning professional, you have probably heard the term needs assessment. Maybe you are conducting these assessments all the time, or maybe you have heard of them but thought they were the great white buffalo of learning and development.
The truth is, a training needs assessment is actually quite simple, and conducting one will help you to target the development of your learning content and programs. Ultimately, you don’t want to spend resources, time and energy creating learning that does not provide the solution to a knowledge gap – especially if one doesn’t exist in the first place.
When learning a new concept, it is often helpful to start with a simple definition. I found this one on NeedsAssessment.org, which also happens to have some great (free) information on conducting training needs assessments. The site states that “a needs assessment is simply a systematic process of asking questions, comparing answers, and making informed decisions about what to do next to improve human or organizational performance.”
OK, so now what?
Before conducting a needs assessment, you first need to determine whom to ask, what to ask, and what you will do once you get the answers. Let me break it down each of these steps for you.
#1. Determine who you should ask
Although the questions will vary slightly, you might want to interview the entire company pyramid. Start with senior-level management, then talk to the front line managers and the people actually doing the work. You may find that the needs of senior management vary greatly from those of the front line managers and the workers. That’s OK – you can still tailor your training programs to meet those needs.
#2. Develop the questions to ask
Your questions for management will be slightly different than the ones you ask workers or subject matter experts since the managers are more in tune with operational results rather than learning gaps. Here are some ideas to get you started, but you will need to tailor them to meet the needs of your own organization. For more detailed information, check out Performance Consulting which is a great reference guide for building your list of questions.
Senior Management/Front Line Managers
What operational/business results to you expect?
How should employees perform to be successful and achieve the expected results?
What are employees doing or not doing that is hindering achievement of the desired results?
What is causing this gap?
For this last question, it’s important to provide examples of external factors like outside influences, company culture, and the talent pool as well as internal factors like lack of skill, inability to find needed information, and unavailability of performance support materials.
It’s important to capture this information because training cannot exclusively solve for external factors like work environment, culture, talent pool – though you can tailor the training you develop to include supportive material to address these issues. For example, you could build realistic scenarios that factor in a stressful or confusing environment, and then provide instruction for achievement despite these challenges.
Front Line Managers/SMEs
What should an ideal ____________ (client service rep, call center rep, etc.) be able to do?
How do the top performing employees currently get to the point where they perform expertly?
For those employees who don’t perform at that level, how do they learn their jobs?
What tools and resources are currently in place that help or hinder an employee’s ability to effectively do his or her job? [This could be anything from formal training, informal training, or mentoring programs, to factors like schedule flexibility.]
How are these tools working or not working and what is lacking?
What would an ideal curriculum look like for your employees that need to increase their skills, abilities and knowledge?
What is your current level of job performance?
What would help you to perform at a higher level? [The answer may be related to training needs, but it may be related to external factors like work-life balance, additional resources (human or non-human), health issues, and so on.]
In what ways do you currently learn about your job and industry? [This may differ from what management believes to be the case.]
What learning opportunities would you like to see offered this year?
#3. Tabulate the results
Once you have gathered the information, you will need to tabulate everything to have a clear picture of what steps to take. Since a training needs assessment does not start with a solution in mind, taking the time to review and organize results is critical.
The results of the assessment will not only provide direction for you as a learning provider, but will justify any actions you take (or don’t take), especially since training (despite what we as learning professionals may try to convince others) is not a cure-all for what ails an organization.
Conducting a training needs assessment is a great way to step back and make sure you have all of the information before you dive into your next learning project. Maybe what your learners need isn’t a new training opportunity at all. You will know this, of course, because you conducted a needs assessment.
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