ATD Blog

Needs Assessment Obstacles to Avoid

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When working on learning and development projects, many professionals immediately race to create course materials and roll out initiatives without upfront analysis of what is driving the need or how to ensure results. They often operate in an “order taker” mode, relying on information from the requester about content, learner needs, the duration of training, and project completion deadlines.

Indeed, talent development professionals are often asked to provide training to fix a perceived problem. When that happens, it’s important to remember that training isn’t a magic bullet; it can’t solve every problem. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” warns Beth McGoldrick, instructional designer at RiverSource Insurance and co-author of Needs Assessment Basics, 2nd edition. If you’re approached to use training to solve a problem, McGoldrick advises agreeing, but then asking a few questions.

“I usually start with a needs assessment when someone brings me a training assignment,” she explains. “I start with a needs assessment on what’s going on with the business and why there is a problem. When (or if) training has been identified as one of the possible solutions, then I start doing a training needs assessment.”

By starting with a broader needs assessment, as opposed to a more specific training needs assessment, you may be able to identify other solutions that could be more effective in closing a specific gap than a training program.

No doubt, needs assessments are an important part of organizational efforts to improve their overall business. However, Needs Assessments: Design and Execution for Success, a recent report from ATD Research, finds that only 56 percent of organizations conduct them.

Assessment Benefits

The top organizational benefit of training needs assessments, as reported by 81 percent of respondents, is that they identify performance gaps. Slightly fewer reported that training needs assessments help align training with organizational objectives (79 percent). Just over half (52 percent) said that training needs assessments reduce the risk of training failure.

Of course, training needs assessments benefit organizations in even more ways. McGoldrick explains when talent development professionals do a training needs assessment, they get to “better meet the needs of the business and the requesting organization, and better align with goals of the requestor. You get closer to the root cause of the problem. There’s better buy-in from leaders too.”

Stumbling Blocks

Study participants were asked about the biggest stumbling blocks for their teams when conducting training needs assessments. A slight majority reported that their biggest obstacle was developing recommendations that could be reasonably implemented, given resources such as budget and time. Meanwhile, nearly half indicated difficulty isolating organizational factors that contribute to current performance levels. Another common stumbling block was applying a systematic process that aligns learning solutions and business outcomes.


Here’s a breakdown of the top challenges:

  • 56%: Developing recommendations that can be implemented given resources
  • 47%: Isolating organizational factors that contribute to current performance
  • 44%: Determining organizational goals
  • 26%: Identifying individual performance levels necessary to meet organizational goals
  • 24%: Applying a systematic process that aligns learning solutions and business outcomes.

Deadra Welcome, CPLP and CEO of Concerning Learning LLC, reiterates the importance of alignment: “The most important part of a needs assessment is alignment to business goals and objectives; specifically, the mission of the organization.”

3 Ways Forward

Based on the results of the study, as well as information gleaned from subject matter experts, ATD Research offers a few key recommendations for making the most of needs assessments.

Build Trust With Stakeholders and Employees. It’s imperative to build relationships with those who are providing information, regardless of whether you are an internal or external talent development professional. Initially, employees probably are going to hold back, especially if you send out a simple survey.

To glean useful insight, it’s crucial to build relationships with your audience as soon as possible. Be intentionally observant by spending time in the field chatting with
employees or shadowing them, seeking only to understand.


Ask the Right Questions. One of the top challenges identified by talent development professionals in the study was that stakeholders assume they already know the needs. Unfortunately, they may not actually know the true needs, so it’s important to question stakeholders to get to the root of the problem.

By pressing others to fully explain themselves, you will be able to help them identify and question their assumptions and better understand the issue at hand. “Asking and answering the right questions is what’s going to make you a successful talent development professional,” explains Roger Kaufman, professor emeritus at Florida State University and co-author of Needs Assessment for Organizational Success.

“People usually know what they want, but don’t often know what they should have,” says Kaufman. “By asking stakeholders questions about required results within the organization as well as with external clients and society, you can help them understand that they may be starting in the middle without even realizing it.”

Take Your Time. Another top challenge was the extensive time required to conduct needs assessments. However, it’s crucial to remember that fixing the whole problem will take time, but you’ll save more time in the end if you fix the whole problem first, rather than just the symptoms.

Deadra Welcome believes that skipping needs assessments is where talent development professionals go wrong. “Many organizations skip needs assessments and really do what I call a wish list,” she explains, “and they just interchange what employees want versus what they need to perform optimally on their jobs.”

Likewise, if training is a targeted area, some may want to skip a training needs assessment entirely because of the perceived lack of time. Needs Assessment Basics warns against this: “Without a [training] needs assessment, trainers risk developing and delivering training programs that do not support organizational needs and, therefore, do not deliver value to the organization or the client.” the authors write. “And, the training that is developed may not be accepted by the target audience, or worse, the training may end up being useless and a waste of everyone’s time.”

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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