Have you ever noticed that training runs in cycles? By this, I mean that the general perception of the training department seems to fluctuate between two extremes: Trainers are either heroes or outlaws. The danger of the hero period is that if you get too fat and lazy while enjoying your hero worship, you will quickly hit bottom and the landing won’t be soft.

Don’t take your fall from grace too personally, though. The criticism you may receive during your outlaw phase isn’t really aimed at you. The training department is often merely a lightening rod for false assessments.

This is because, correctly or not so correctly, executives often assess training by assessing overall company productivity. This means trainers may get credit for work they didn’t do and blamed for disasters they didn’t cause. Trainers are also expected to “fix” broken processes and attitudes as part of a routine day.

The cycle runs something like this:

Part of the trick to enjoying a long and happy career in the training world involves insulating yourself from the inevitable swings of the corporate pendulum. Needs assessments are a powerful tool for trainers to use to build that layer of protection. Here’s why.

The benefits of a needs analysis
A needs analysis will provide you with concrete data to use in your arguments for training. If you take the time to conduct this review, you will be able to explain to managers the difference between perceptions and reality. As in, “Mark thinks he knows how to use a pivot table in Excel, but when I asked him to take this Excel quiz, he scored fairly low.” Here are a few of the advantages of doing a needs analysis.

A needs analysis can identify gaps between an individual’s opinion of his or her skills and the actual skill level that exists. For example, an analysis will tell you the differences between:

  • An individual’s self assessment of his/her skill level versus an actual measurement of the skill level
  • A department’s perception of group skill levels versus an actual assessment of group skill levels

The results of a needs analysis should determine what to train, not just who or when, and the “what” can be surprising. When first considering the roots of a problem, you may think that everyone understands “X” and the problem is “Y,” when in fact the reverse may be true. An analysis will give you a clearer and more realistic picture of what your colleagues know and what they don’t know.

When you’re looking for skill gaps, you also may find other operational gaps. Those operational gaps are often the drivers behind low productivity. A skillful trainer can use these findings to become a strategic expert.

A significant investment in time and money
The logical next question to ask is: “Okay, if needs assessments accomplish so much, why aren’t they more prevalent?” The answer to that question is found in management’s priorities and your company’s culture.

A fast-paced, high-growth company or a company that is more reactive than proactive may find any type of analysis costly and time-consuming. Both descriptions are accurate.

A well-designed needs analysis can easily take three months to complete. Fast-growing companies can change before a needs analysis is complete. Many companies cannot dedicate an internal resource to a three-month project, and consultants charge a premium fee.

In spite of these obstacles, the return on this investment is well worth both the time and the money. In fast growing companies, determining skills and/or process gaps can be the difference between moving to the next level or imploding from the pressure of expansion.

Reactive companies gain insights into root causes behind low productivity and can map out strategies to avoid problems instead of constantly trying to fix them. Organizations on tight budgets can benefit from the reduction in rework resulting from a well-planned and executed assessment.

The nine steps of a needs analysis
Here are the steps involved in a basic needs analysis:

  1. Define the problem to be addressed.
    A well-defined problem will be stated in concrete, measurable terms. This is a poorly written problem statement: “The beta test version of our software isn’t being thoroughly tested before going to market.”
    This one is well written: “We have improved our speed in getting new product to market, but at a cost. Customers are finding a 3 percent error rate with piloted software. We need to improve our beta testing so that we lower that error rate by at least 50 percent.”
    Conducting focus groups is a great way to build a problem statement.
  2. Investigate the problem.
    Ask what processes are in place. Ask how people currently do their jobs. Observe people doing their jobs. If possible, talk to customers (internal and external) about the product. Ask experts how the process should work.
    Look for both consistencies and inconsistencies in the information gathered.
  3. Catalog the steps required to complete the process or task.
    Use this information to build a process map. Get input on your blueprint from coworkers and people involved in the process before moving forward.
  4. Develop a skills inventory for each task.
    Ask a mix of associates, managers, and customers (if possible) what is required to do the job successfully. Create benchmarks based on what peer companies do. Professional associations can be very helpful with this.
    Again, look at consistencies and inconsistencies in the way things are done. Also, look closely at external sources of information (if you have been lucky enough to obtain some).
  5. Determine self-assessed skill levels.
    Ask individuals to rank their skills in areas critical to success. Ask what else they need to be successful (resources, support, etc.)
  6. Determine management’s definition of required skills and its assessment of current skill levels.
    Gaps between self-assessed needs and management’s perceptions of these needs should be red flags.
  7. Develop an independent and objective assessment instrument. Examples of assessment instruments include:
  • Written tests
  • Simulations
  • Skill observation checklists
  1. Determine the average skill level of your employee base (from the assessment instrument noted in item No. 7)
  2. Compare this against three things:
  • Each employee’s self-assessment
  • The team’s cumulative self-assessment
  • The manager’s assessment

Closing the gaps
If the analysis is done correctly, problems will become apparent immediately. Possible gap areas will be found between:

  • An individual’s perception of skill level and her or his actual skill level.
  • Management’s perception of resources required to succeed and employees’ actual needs.
  • Customer expectations and internally developed objectives.

For a training program to have maximum impact, all these issues must be addressed. Be careful, though; needs assessments are powerful tools.

Once you have helped your company uncover the issues lying beneath the surface, you will be expected to resolve the issues. While you may fix some issues with training, other gaps will be more complex. Solutions may be costly to implement, and some solutions will not be popular. In any event, the resolution is sure to enhance productivity and improve profitability. Those are the ultimate goals of corporate training.
Have you ever conducted a needs analysis? How did it go? Was it worthwhile? Would you do it again? Send us an e-mail and tell us about your needs.