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The 5 Must-Haves of Needs Assessment

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Wed Jan 17 2024

The 5 Must-Haves of Needs Assessment
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Navigating training requests without a needs assessment can feel like steering a ship through heavy fog. Fortunately, creating a focused strategy can help learning and development professionals land on the true business needs.

But crafting an effective needs assessment is hard when time is tight, resources are thin, or you’re a department of one. Sound familiar?

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For advice, I spoke with Kelly L. Jones and Jody N. Lumsden (see video), authors of Needs Assessment on a Shoestring, a new book from ATD Press. During our discussion, they shared five key elements L&D pros require for a successful needs assessment strategy.

Know the Primary Problem to Be Solved

According to Lumsden, “Learning and development professionals really need to know what problem they're trying to solve.”

In their book, the authors explain that the problem is the reason for the needs assessment; it represents the issue, challenge, or opportunity to solve. And they recommend working with stakeholders to identify and quantify the problem as early as possible to plan an effective needs assessment.

It’s also important to work on one problem at a time. If multiple problems are identified, collaborate with stakeholders to prioritize each problem.

When pressed for time, the book suggests using “cut to the chase” questions to quickly uncover the root of the problem. Here are a few questions the authors recommend asking stakeholders:

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  • What is the most important thing that needs to change?

  • What is currently driving the need for this change?

  • What will happen if we don’t solve the problem?

  • If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to solve this problem?

  • How will you know the problem is solved?

Understand the Business Impact of the Problem

L&D professionals should also ask questions to help them understand how a specific problem affects the business. The book asserts that the business impact informs why the problem is worth solving. Be sure to clarify how this problem is affecting the business performance. This can also help you prioritize solution development.

Recognize the Current State and the Goal State

“Understand where you are today and where you need to go,” reminds Lumsden. Being able to capture the current state and the goal state, which the authors define as “the future results of solving today’s problems,” can help you detect potential gaps, solutions, and timelines.

One way to understand the current state of the problem is to listen to stakeholders rationalize why they need a learning solution. Identifying and quantifying both the current state and goal state is necessary to develop recommendations and evaluate solutions for the needs assessment.

Identify All Stakeholders

Jones and Lumsden note that stakeholders have a vested interest in the needs assessment because they’re the individuals who must solve the problem or they’re the folks who will feel the impact from your needs assessment’s outcome.

The authors believe that knowing who all your stakeholders are is critical for a successful needs assessment. Lumsden adds that that includes stakeholders who are “on the fringe” of the problem.

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“The last thing you want is to uncover secret stakeholders and scope creep when you’re tight on resources,” they share.

The book also recommends categorizing stakeholders based on their level of investment, designating them as sponsors, key advisors, collaborators, or partners for clarity. Once L&D pros identify stakeholders, they can work together to determine scope, expectations, and available resources. This process helps address key questions and identify data requirements for conducting a comprehensive needs assessment.

Specify a Research Methodology

For L&D pros, identifying the methodology they will use when conducting the needs assessment can boil down to figuring out potential research questions.

According to Lumsden, “It sounds a bit academic, but you really need to know how in the world you’re going to get this information and where in the organization does it live? Who owns it?”

But to develop essential research questions, first identify the problem, understand its business impact, and know the current state and goal state, Jones and Lumsden advise in the book. Once this is complete, research questions can help define any strategies required for collecting and analyzing data and setting the scope for the needs assessment. Suppose you’re new to writing research questions or don’t have enough information. In that case, the authors recommend asking stakeholders to share the top three things they’d like to know about the problem you’re investigating.

For more on gathering insight through data analysis and putting forward effective solution recommendations, check out Needs Assessment on a Shoestring.

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