In this article, I will cover three important things about needs assessment in L&D.
First, I'll explain what needs assessment should be. I want you to understand not just what it is but what it's meant to do for us in L&D and our organizations.
Then, I will look at how we're doing things now and ask a big question: Are we doing it right? It's important to see if our current approaches are working how they should.
Finally, I'll share some ideas on how we can do better. I've got a list of changes and tips that can help us not just this year but for many years.
What needs assessment is supposed to be?
You might have seen that I said 'what needs assessment should be' instead of just 'what it is.'
That's because there's a big difference between what this process is meant for and what we're actually doing with it. Needs assessment should be the key to good L&D. It's how we find out what organizational capabilities, skills, or knowledge we're missing. Once we gather all this data, we’re supposed to use it to draft solutions that really help, serving exactly what each team or person needs and solving real problems.
But are we really making the most of it? Let's find out.
Why we need to think differently about needs assessment
We often call this process "training needs assessment" or "learning needs assessment." But these names can be misleading. They make it sound like the only answer is always "training", and that we should only look for problems that can be solved through learning initiatives.
What’s wrong with training needs assessment?
First off, thinking that training is our only choice isn't right. In the L&D world, we've got lots of different tools we can use. These include mentoring, peer learning, coaching, job aids, behavior change initiatives, and process improvement, to name a few.
By branding the process as a "training needs assessment," we set the expectation for stakeholders that their role is merely to list the training they think is needed. This might sound like a familiar scenario, but it’s also one that significantly undermines the true potential of needs assessment.
What’s wrong with learning needs assessment?
Secondly, limiting our scope to issues solely related to 'learning' is a misstep. A thorough needs assessment involves understanding the problem from all angles, not just the learning aspect.
The key is to initially set aside the notion of solutions and focus intently on understanding the problems. This approach will allow us to identify more effective and diverse solutions beyond just training.
The problem with how we do needs assessment today
Now, let's talk about the way we usually do needs assessment. You might have seen something like this in your job: you make a list of team leaders to talk to, chat with them to get a list of trainings they think is needed, and then decide which trainings to do and how much money to spend on them.
But there are a few problems with this approach.
First, team leaders, like all of us, have their own biases. Relying only on their opinions won't give us the full picture of what's really going on or what our company needs.
Secondly, when we talk to these leaders, we often focus too much on finding quick solutions. What we should be doing is spending all our time understanding the problems they're facing. We should be asking lots of questions and really listening, not just thinking about what training to offer.
Lastly, we often link needs assessment directly to how much money we have to spend. This makes us think that every solution has to cost money. But is that really true? Maybe this way of thinking is just making us focus too much on training and not enough on other, maybe cheaper or even free, solutions.