Before starting to design a learning solution, which tool can help guide your work? Just like embarking upon an unfamiliar road trip, starting a learning project requires a blueprint, a guide. To ensure you don’t get lost along the way, a map is essential (assuming this scenario takes place in the pre-GPS era). The map would provide direction for your trip, helping you to reach your destination. Without the map, you could find yourself somewhere you never intended to be and didn’t want to go.
Similarly, designing a learning solution without conducting a needs assessment can often lead a client down the wrong road and to ineffective training. While a training program without a needs assessment may appeal to the client, it could potentially fail to address business objectives. In this way, the needs assessment functions as a roadmap for the training, getting the client to their destination (the business objective) in the most efficient way possible.
To perform a needs assessment, a consultant must first learn the client’s business objectives and determine if there are gaps in reaching those objectives. To do this, she/he engages the sponsors of the proposed learning in conversation about their business needs. With this information, a consultant can begin to figure out the learning objectives needed to achieve the business goals, according to Marilyn Kobus, an organizational and learning consultant with EnVision.
Questions such as the following can kick off a strong needs assessment:
- What are your current business goals?
- What type of performance will be needed by people in your group if your business goals are to be realized?
- What do you want learners/employees to be able to do more effectively or differently?
- In what ways are your employees prepared or not prepared to perform in the manner described above?
- What has worked or not worked when you have tried to improve the performance of people in this employee group before?
The learning professional then typically seeks a deeper understanding of challenges and learning needs and conducts focus groups and/or interviews with representatives of the target audience and perhaps their managers. After this process, the learning professional recommends specific tactics and tools to achieve the learning objectives. “In every situation, it is important to keep in mind the change the client is trying to accomplish,” explained Paula Spizziri, an instructional designer and EnVision team member.
Kobus knows firsthand that what you learn – or don’t learn – in the needs assessment can impact the success of the future curriculum. While consulting to a manufacturing company, Kobus interviewed the VP of Manufacturing about training a group of line supervisors. The VP was interested in repurposing an overseas training program for supervisors in the United States. Kobus conducted two focus groups with both managers and supervisors to learn more about the supervisors’ challenges as well as their skill levels.
While preparing the needs assessment, Kobus quickly recognized that the supervisors faced distinctly different issues from their overseas counterparts. For starters, the supervisors were overwhelmed by managing too many people. Operational difficulties also impacted their productivity. The plant didn’t have an automated system to track where the “widget” was in the manufacturing process, so the supervisors frequently ran around the plant to monitor production. In addition, the American supervisors had several more years of experience than their overseas counterparts and required a different type of training. Finally, the manufacturing company had a tough time retaining the line supervisors due to these issues.
Though the VP of Manufacturing pushed for the training, Kobus instead recommended that the company consider addressing other improvements first. They did. The executives adopted new computer systems to fix the operational challenges. Per Kobus’ recommendation, management assigned fewer workers to each supervisor, and hired new supervisors, which distributed the workload more fairly.
Once these changes had been made, management could revisit their learning objectives. The original training for less experienced supervisors had incorporated modules on communication and performance management. Kobus modified the training to include advanced communications skills, time management, and tips on “managing up.” The training was a success.
If Kobus had gone ahead with training the supervisors immediately as the VP requested, she could easily have alienated her target market. “The audience was more ready to receive the training [later],” said Kobus. “By participating in the needs assessment, they really felt heard.”
With another project, Kobus was unable to complete a needs assessment; the vice president at this second company didn’t allow her to interview the employees. Per the VP’s request, she created an L&D solution anyway. After a great deal of time and money, the client had a high-quality learning solution….that didn’t meet the company’s needs and learning objectives.
The needs assessment can truly make or break the success of a project. Based on her experience, Spizziri believes an incomplete or poor needs assessment often yields extraneous curriculum content that doesn’t meet the learning objectives. Conversely, a thorough needs assessment can identify valuable content for the future solution, according to Kobus. “The time you spend upfront is really time well spent, because you can discover some things you didn’t know,” explained Kobus. “The needs assessment gives you great content for your solution, and helps ensure that the learning delivers value and is linked to business results.”