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ATD Blog

The What, Why, and How of Needs Assessments

Wednesday, May 5, 2021
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Organizations and talent development professionals use needs assessments to examine the gaps between current situations and desired business results.

Let’s examine the ins and outs of this vital tool.

What Is a Needs Assessment?

Gus Presta, in a September 2018 CTDO magazine article, described a needs assessment as “a study of the gap between an organization’s desired state and its current state. When done correctly, a needs assessment challenges assumptions and broadens the discussion to include data and divergent perspectives, mitigates groupthink and individual biases, enables better decision making, engenders inclusion, and ultimately leads to better, faster business results.”

A needs assessment is critical in determining what kind of solution is needed to gain the desired results. Without it, talent development professionals risk creating training programs that do not support organizational needs or solve the business or performance improvement problems.

What Are the Steps to Needs Assessment?

According to Deborah D. Tobey and Beth McGoldrick in Needs Assessment Basics, 2nd Edition, the seven steps in training needs assessment are:

Step 1. Conduct an External and Internal Organizational Scan
Training professionals should spend a significant amount of time scanning the internal and external environment and gathering information from many sources, such as newspapers, current events, annual reports, financial statements, customer service data, strategic plans, benchmarking, and the breakroom.

Step 2. Collect Data to Identify Business Needs
From the scanning process, the needs assessor should identify the current organizational needs, which fall into three categories:

  • An opportunity that must be capitalized upon (for example, a new product or market)
  • A problem that must be resolved (for example, waste, customer complaints, poor product quality, absenteeism)
  • A business strategy that must be supported (for example, a marketing and product approach that caters to a certain age group or a hospital that wants to brand itself as “the best maternity hospital in the community”)

Business needs can be identified at the macro level (the overall organization) or at the micro level (one department or unit, depending on who your client is).

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Step 3. Collect Data to Identify Performance, Learning, and Learner Needs
Multiple sources of data must be addressed to identify desired and current job performance, desired and current skill and knowledge level, and learner needs. Each set of needs will likely include needs based on employees’ lack of knowledge or skills (which can be addressed by training) and needs that are affected by other factors that require nontraining solutions.

Step 4. Analyze Data
Data analysis yields key information that identifies the gaps between desired and current job performance as well as between desired and current knowledge and skill levels so that the ultimate training design will target those gaps. Understanding the magnitude of these gaps also assists the needs assessor in assigning priorities to the various issues that must be addressed.

Step 5. Identify Potential Training Solutions
At this point in the process, potential training initiatives have usually been identified by either the needs assessor or the client. Sometimes the needs assessors will approach their clients to share discoveries they made during organizational scanning, and sometimes the clients make the first move.

Step 6. Deliver Data Analysis Feedback
The needs assessor makes a presentation or generates a report for the client detailing data analysis, training recommendations for design and delivery, and nontraining recommendations (recommendations to resolve issues that are not caused by knowledge or skill deficiencies).

Step 7: Transition—Begin Training Design Process
This is where the process segues into design. If the needs assessment has been implemented well, the instructional designer has ample information to produce targeted learning objectives, learning activities, job-relevant content and materials to support activities, measurement and evaluation tools, and a learning environment.

This process includes many steps that occur before a training solution is even mentioned. It is critical that any training initiative undertaken be directly linked to the business needs of the organization through internal and external scanning and identification of business needs before any other work is done. If not, value is not added.

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How Is a Needs Assessment Conducted?

What needs assessment techniques do you use to gain the assessment results?

Needs Assessment Basics, 2nd Edition maps out the data collection methods, which are either qualitative or quantitative. Quantitative methods—surveys, assessments and tests, and job task analysis—are those that result in hard data, which are objective and measurable, whether stated in terms of frequency, percentage, proportion, or time.

Qualitative measures—interviews, critical incident interviews, focus groups, and observation—yield soft data, which are more intangible, anecdotal, personal, and subjective, such as opinions, attitudes, assumptions, feelings, values, and desires.

Quantitative and qualitative data are both important to the needs assessment process and would work well here. For example, knowing how job performers feel (qualitative measure) about a skill will be just as important in the ultimate training design as knowing how well (quantitative measure) they perform it.

Quick Tips

  • Don’t assume that what worked in the past will work now. Get out of your comfort zone and be open to change.
  • Use an ideal vision as the underlying basis for planning.
  • Differentiate between ends and means (focus on what before how).
  • Prepare objectives—including ideal vision and mission objectives—that have measures of how you will know when you have arrived (mission statement and success criteria).
  • Define “need” as a gap in results (not as insufficient levels of resources, means, or methods).

For a more in-depth view of needs assessment, check out Needs Assessment Basics, 2nd Edition.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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