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Needs Assessment vs. Needs Analysis

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Simply stated, a needs assessment identifies gaps between current and desired results—not means—and places those in priority order on the basis of the costs to meet the needs as compared to the costs to ignore the needs.  These gaps are called needs, and needs chosen for resolution can also be referred to as problems. By defining need as the gap between current and required results, we have the basis for justifying not only where we should head but also the evidence for proving the costs of meeting the need—getting to the ‘right’ destination—as well as the costs for ignoring the need. We have to operate in an environment of trust, and trust is best built through objective evidence. 

Defining need as a gap in results provides a triple bonus:

  1. You determine “what should be,” which is derived on the basis of performance data; this becomes your objectives.
  2. You have the basic criteria for evaluation; you only have to compare the new distance between What Is and What Should Be based on the needs identified and justified.
  3. You have the basis for unimpeachable proposals because you can provide both the conventional “cost to meet the need” with the “costs to ignore the need.” 

Taking this approach has an additional organizational political benefit. If you provide such data in a proposal and it is turned down by the person making the project decision, then any responsibility for failure and the consequences shifts away from you. 
Needs Are Not Wants, and Means Are Not Ends 

It is critical to understand that there is a wide range of perceptions about what is called a “need” or a “needs assessment.” In fact, many so-called needs are not needs at all, but preferred wants. Likewise, many so-called needs assessments are not needs assessments, but rather a survey of wants. 

For example, picking training as a solution, and then asking your employees to come up with 10 reasons why they need training or in what areas they would like training is not a needs assessment. This is an example of how to justify preferred solutions through incomplete data (in this case, popular wants) without first collecting evidence about real gaps, actual causal factors, and a range of relevant options. 

Variations of this process have also been referred to as performance analysis (International Society for Performance Improvement, 2011; Pershing, 2006), or assumed to be part of a frontend analysis (Harless, 1975), or a figuring things out (FTO) study (Zemke and Kramlinger, 1982).

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However, we caution about blurring assessment with analysis, as one seeks to identify gaps in results, while the other seeks to understand the root causes and essential elements of such gaps. If we refer to a basic Webster’s definition of analysis, we find that analysis is described as the process of studying the nature of something or determining its essential features and their relations.

In this sense, both needs assessment and needs analysis are part of an essential and preliminary stage in any learning and performance improvement effort. Needs assessment provides data about gaps in results, and therefore sets up the evaluation framework to be used when evaluating the solutions that were implemented to close such gaps (Guerra-López, 2008).

Needs analysis should come after a needs assessment in order to provide data about the causal factors of the gaps, and therefore critical input about what solution alternatives should be considered to close such gaps. Indeed analysis is an important and supporting aspect of evaluation—and all performance improvement phases—as one should always seek to better understand gaps between What Is and What Should Be (or what was intended).

Training Needs Assessment Caveat

It is also worth noting the distinction between a performance-based needs assessment and a training needs assessment. The purpose of a training needs assessment is to identify “the things we must know before we train….” (Rossett, 1987, p. 14), which suggests we already know training is the solution to the performance problem. From a performance perspective, needs  assessments can be conducted at various levels of organizational results, including strategic (external impact), tactical (overall organizational results), and operational (internal deliverables), independently of any pre-imposed solution(s). 

Within an instructional context, needs assessments could be conducted at the learner level, either looking at gaps in knowledge, or preferably, looking at gaps in human performance and behaviors first, and then seeking to identify the relevant gaps in knowledge so as to better target desired results. This is echoed by Dick, Carey, and Carey (2009), who suggest that needs assessment, in the context of instructional design, begins by asking what learners must be able to do or perform, rather than what they must know (Guerra-López in Richey, 2012). 

What’s more, although sometimes the terms needs assessments and evaluations are used interchangeably, they are quite different.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the ATD Press book, Needs Assessment for Organizational Success . Based on an Organizational Elements Model (OEM), authors Kaufman and Guerra-Lopez approach fully complete needs assessment as including not just needs and wants, but also societal value. Incorporating the model to add to the traditional ADDIE design process, this book provides new insight in managing the needs assessment process to structure performance improvement across all aspects of measurement and supportive decision-making tools.

About the Author

Roger Kaufman, PhD, is professor emeritus at Florida State University and a distinguished research professor at the Sonora Institute of Technology (Mexico). Kaufman is the recipient of a U.S. Homeland Security/U.S. Coast Guard medal for Meritorious Public Service. He has also been awarded the International Society for Performance Improvement’s (ISPI) top two honors: Honorary Member for Life and the Thomas F. Gilbert Award. He is a past ISPI president and a founding member, and is the recipient of ASTD’s Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance recognition. Kaufman has published 41 books and more than 285 articles, including Needs Assessment for Organizational Success (ATD Press).

About the Author
Ingrid Guerra-López, PhD, is an internationally recognized performance improvement expert and bestselling author. She is the chief executive officer of the Institute for Needs Assessment and Evaluation, a firm that provides consulting, coaching, and training and development services focused on strategic measurement, management, and alignment of learning and performance improvement programs. Ingrid is also a professor at Wayne State University, where she conducts research and teaches graduate courses focused on performance measurement, management, and strategic alignment. She recently completed a term as director on the board of the International Society for Performance Improvement, and completed her tenure as editor-in-chief of Performance Improvement Quarterly.

Ingrid has authored seven books, including Needs Assessment for Organizational Success and Performance Evaluation: Proven Approaches to Improving Programs and Organizations. She has also authored approximately 100 articles and facilitated hundreds of international and national presentations and workshops on topics related to performance assessment, monitoring and evaluation, and strategic alignment. Her clients include international development agencies, government, education, military, healthcare, and corporate organizations. Ingrid has coached and mentored hundreds of graduate students, executives, managers, and other professionals, disseminating evidenced-based performance improvement practices internationally in more than 30 countries.
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