Training Needs Assessments: 3 Frameworks that Go Beyond Cookie-Cutter Advice
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Instructional Design
min read

Training Needs Assessments: 3 Frameworks that Go Beyond Cookie-Cutter Advice

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Google 'training needs assessment' and you'll find a lot of generic, unhelpful, even contradictory, advice.

Statements like "look at all your team members and evaluate their current skill levels in relation to the skills you have laid out in the first stage of the (training needs analysis) process. This will allow you to see who is meeting your expectations" seem helpful at first, but no one could actually do a meaningful skills gap analysis based on this information. It's not wrong; but it isn't useful.

The lack of actionable guidance on training needs assessments has real consequences for  learning designers, particularly those in the early stages of their careers. Bad needs assessments can lead to low course completion rates, sub-par performance metrics, and even the creation of unnecessary training.

All of this translates to wasted time and money, and a big headache for you as a learning designer.

This post aims to fill that information gap by laying out 3 frameworks to follow when doing a training needs assessment. By the end of the post you'll understand a variety of ways to:

  • articulate a performance gap
  • determine whether an online course is the best way to solve your problem (hint, it isn't always!)
  • make a case that justifies the existence of your course or learning intervention

Forget about the cookie-cutter advice on Google. These frameworks have got you covered.

Want to learn more about needs assessments? Join our free Cohort Based Course on Instructional Design Principles for Course Creation

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What Is a Training Needs Assessment?

A training needs assessment is a process used by instructional designers to understand the root causes of a problem.

That problem is often a performance gap—for example, when an employee's performance is below where the company would like it to be. But the problem can also be something like a knowledge gap—for example, the company introduces a new software suite and no one knows how to use it.

The root cause of these kinds of problems isn't always clear. For example, if the team isn't reporting on a new system correctly, there are a few possible root causes:

  • the system is new and the team don't know how to use it yet
  • the system isn't set up properly or needs to be simplified for users

That's why a key feature of any needs assessment is to analyze the symptoms of a problem so that you can diagnose the real root cause. The needs assessment won't always conclude that training is the best way to bring about change. Sometimes change will happen through job analysis, departmental reorganization, or employee engagement initiatives.

The training needs assessment is the first step in the wider ADDIE process. The information gathered in the needs assessment informs the rest of the process, especially the design stage of ADDIE.

Remember, the learner analysis, environment analysis, and task analysis don't have a prescriptive order. Sometimes the learner analysis might even be a part of the needs analysis, depending on the framework you follow.

Abbie Brown and Tim Green, authors of 'The Essentials of Instructional Design', describe the training needs assessment as a process to help:

Identify the change that is requested and the different variables surrounding this change. These variables include identifying the desired change that needs to occur, who wants the change to occur, and in what environment this change should occur.

Is It a Needs Assessment Or a Needs Analysis?

Some instructional designers consider the needs assessment and the needs analysis to be different activities. People in this camp define each as follows:

  • Needs assessment: Allows you to identify the existence of a gap between current state, and ideal state. It comes before the analysis
  • Needs analysis: Allows you to understand exactly what that gap looks like, by analyzing the data gathered in the needs assessment.

While these two definitions exist, most instructional designers use the terms interchangeably. At Eduflow, we think both terms are part of the same process, which aims to determine the cause of a performance problem, and determine what needs to be taught to address the gap. We use the term 'needs assessment' (as you can see from the title of this post 😄).

When to Conduct a Training Needs Assessment

There are no hard and fast rules about when you should conduct a training needs assessment. But certain events can act as a trigger:

  • A company- or department-wide re-organization
  • Introduction of new systems, processes, or technology
  • Identification of performance problems
  • After performance reviews
  • Changes in the team, like promotions or lay-off
  • Regulatory or legal changes
  • Introduction of talent management or career development plans

Even if none of the above triggers apply to your workplace, it's still a good idea to do regular training needs assessments. These check-ins will give you a 360-degree understanding of your company's organizational, operational, and individual training needs.

3 Training Need Assessment Frameworks to Try Out

Despite the generic advice you find online about needs assessments, there are several actionable frameworks instructional designers can use to do needs assessments in different contexts.

We'll take a deep-dive into 3 commonly used frameworks. All aim to answer the questions 'what change needs to happen?' and 'is training the best way to make it happen?', but each framework gets to the answers in different ways:

  • Mager & Pipe's Performance Analysis
  • Eduflow's 5 Steps
  • Morrisson, Ross, Kalman & Kemp's Needs Assessment

Mager & Pipe's Performance Analysis

Robert Mager and Peter Pipe introduced their model for analyzing performance problems in a 1997 book. The model is visualized as a flowchart, which prompts you to ask questions and take different branches based on answers.

As you work through the flowchart, you get closer to discovering, in Mager's words, "the proper course of action (...) when people aren't doing what they should be doing". If the gap between what people are doing and should be doing is attributable to knowledge, instruction is needed.

If the flowchart looks complex to you, it helps to break down the Mager & Pipe model into a series of 7 steps, with questions to ask at each step:

Steps in Mager & Pipe's model

The Mager & Pipe framework is a great one to use when you don't have a lot of time to dedicate to your needs assessment. Mager claims his performance analysis should only take "a few minutes".

Eduflow's 5-Step Training Needs Assessment

In our free cohort-based course on Instructional Design Principles for Course Creation, we teach participants a 5-step version of the training needs assessment.

Step 1: Frame your problem

Start out by describing what initiated the need for an assessment. Think about it as identifying the ‘symptoms’ that will help you to get to the root of the problem. You could include factors like poor performance, a change in technology or process, or workforce changes.

Condense these factors into a short problem statement that encapsulates the gap between the current and desired realities. For example:

Our organization has received an influx of complaints from customers who report that sales representatives have been violating GDPR privacy rules. The consequences of continued violations put us at risk of receiving fines and damaging our reputation.

Step 2: Formulate a research plan

Using your problem statement as a guide, formulate one or more research questions that will help you get to the root of the issue:

  • Who has the information you need?
  • What might prevent you getting this information?
  • Who do you need to bring in to support information gathering (eg SMEs)

In our GDPR example from step one, the questions might include:

  • Q1: How are sales representatives violating the GDPR rules
  • Q2: Why are they violating the rules?

Step 3: Choose your research methods

Based on your research questions, you now have to choose research methods to help you get the information you need. Instructional designers often use a variety of methods during this stage of the needs assessment, including:

  • Skills test results
  • Interviews
  • Engagement survey data
  • Exit Interviews
  • Employee Grievances/Complaints
  • Customer or client success metrics
  • Focus Groups or listening tours

Step 4: Perform your training needs assessment

With a problem statement, information sources and research tools in hand, you're ready to start the 'assessment' part of your needs assessment. That involves gathering information from your sources, and data from your research methods, and combining them into a report.

At this point, step back and assess whether you have everything you need. Does your data give a rounded view of the situation? Have you spoken to a selection of stakeholders and SMEs? Repeat steps 2-3 if you feel like you don't have enough information to assess the situation correctly.

At the end of this step, you should have a clear idea of whether training is the right way to solve the performance problem or bring about the desired change.

Lance Hewett, Eduflow's course participant, mentions training mostly applies in three cases:

  1. When there is a need for generic (non-org.-specific), often technical skills / knowledge - in which case, an asynchronous, self-paced scalable approach works well;
  2. Organization-specific skills and advanced skills, in which case, mentoring/coaching is excellent; and
  3. Mindset-oriented transformation,  ‘soft skills’— leadership, motivation, engagement, etc. — in which case, instructor-led interventions/events/workshops are highly effective.

If you want to see an example of the kind of training needs assessment report produced during this step, check out this example from the UK's DFID.

Want to learn more about needs assessments? Join our free Cohort Based Course on Instructional Design Principles for Course Creation

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Step 5: Create a needs statement

The final step in our needs assessment process is to create a simple needs statement that summarizes your research findings. This is a one sentence statement that makes the case either for, or against, a training intervention. We use the following format:

  • A course about ________ should exist because [the target audience] are not ________

Here's what our GDPR course needs statement might look like:

A course about our internal processes for protecting customer data should exist because the sales staff are not aware of their responsibilities in terms of client data management policies.

Morrison, Ross, Kalman, and Kemp's Needs Assessment

Our final framework is an in-depth approach that has 4 functions:

  • Identify needs that affect job performance
  • Identify 'critical needs', or those that have a significant impact on a company's profitability or safety
  • Set priorities to make it easier to choose the best intervention
  • Gathers 'before' data to compare to data collected after any eventual training intervention

Morrison, Ross, Kalman, and Kemp's model is more complex than the previous 2 frameworks, but can still be condensed into 4 main phases:

  1. Planning phase: Define the target audience and the type of data you'll need to collect. Establish how you'll collect that data (the research methods we mentioned above). Design things like surveys, interview questions, etc you'll need for Phase 2.
  2. Data collection phase: In this phase, you select a statistically significant audience segment and collect data from them. Instructional designers without a background in statistics and data analysis will probably want to get extra support on this phase.
  3. Data analysis phase: Analyzing the data involves looking for trends and outliers, and using this information to identify needs. In Morrison et al's framework, there are 6 types of need (comparative, normative, felt, expressed, anticipated, and critical incident), and these needs are prioritized according to urgency and potential impact. Morrison et al suggest using the Delphi method to prioritize them, a process for group decision-making using questionnaires and feedback.
  4. Report phase: The final phase sees you prepare a report with 4 sections: a summary of purpose; a summary of assessment process; summary of both quantitative and qualitative results; and recommendations based on the data.

This framework is most effective when learning designers have time and resources to dedicate to data analysis, or some knowledge of statistics.

After the Training Needs Assessment

Whichever framework you decide to use, you should come out of the training needs assessment with a clear picture of the root causes of any performance/skills gaps, and whether training is necessary.

If training isn't the answer, put the brakes on any training requests and instead recommend the organizational or operational adjustments that will bring about change. The data you collected in the needs assessment process will help you create a compelling argument.

If training is the answer, you'll want to start researching learner personas, the learning environment, and granular content needs. We cover those next steps in our free, cohort-based course on Instructional Design Principles for Course Creation.

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