A guide to running a strategic needs assessment process

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.

Subscribe to Offbeat

Every Sunday we send over a pack of articles, e-books, podcasts, videos, and thoughts, to inspire you and help you stay up to date with what's happening within our L&D community

Running a better needs assessment: 6 steps

Fixing the way we do needs assessments isn't quick or easy. It takes time and a few tries to get it right. But it's definitely worth it. By improving this process, we can come up with better solutions, add more value to our work, and make our jobs more interesting.

Here are some changes you might want to think about.

1. Prepare thoroughly before starting needs assessment

Preparation is the foundation of an effective needs assessment. Before diving in, take a moment to clarify your objectives. What exactly are you trying to uncover? Consider the sources from which you can gather this information and reflect on what you already know. Understanding the broader context of your industry is also crucial. This step ensures that when you begin the actual assessment, you're not just collecting data, but seeking insights with purpose and direction.

2. Diversify your data sources to lower bias

Relying solely on a single source of information can lead to a skewed perspective. To counteract this, integrate diverse data sources into your assessment. This means reaching out to various stakeholders, utilizing people and business analytics, and even considering external industry trends. By painting a more comprehensive picture of your organizational needs, you reduce the risk of bias and make your findings more reliable and actionable.

3. Go in interviews/ focus groups led by curiosity

When conducting interviews or focus groups, let curiosity guide you. Approach each conversation with an open mind, asking clarifying questions to delve deeper into the issues at hand. Resist the urge to jump to solutions immediately. The goal here is to thoroughly understand the problem from various angles, not to prescribe solutions on the spot. This approach will help you uncover more nuanced insights.

4. Stop and look at problems from all angles

After collecting your data, take a pause. This is your opportunity to reflect on the problems identified from all perspectives. Avoid the temptation to rush into solution-mode. Instead, give yourself space to consider the issues without preconceived notions of the answers. This step is crucial in ensuring that you don't miss out on more effective, less obvious solutions.

5. Brainstorm solutions before moving to budgeting

Before you start thinking about budgets and resources, focus on brainstorming potential solutions. This phase is about creativity and innovation, exploring a range of options that may not necessarily require substantial financial investment. It’s an opportunity to think outside the traditional training box and consider various approaches to address the identified needs.

6. Draft your plan and send it to key stakeholders

Once you have a solid understanding of the needs and potential solutions, it's time to draft a plan. This plan should be comprehensive, detailing the steps you propose to take, including timelines and responsibilities. Once drafted, share this plan with key stakeholders for feedback. Their insights can help refine your approach, ensuring it’s well-rounded and has the buy-in from those involved.

Adapt your needs assessment process iteratively

Remember, changing how we do things can be a big surprise for everyone involved. If people are used to just giving a list of trainings, they might find it strange at first to answer lots of questions and think about different types of solutions.

The best way to help everyone get used to these changes is to make them in an iterative mode. This might take a year or two, but it will make it more likely that the new way of doing things will work out well and have everyone’s buy-in.

The importance of running needs assessment strategically

Running a strategic needs assessment shouldn’t be just a routine step; it's really important for helping an organization do its best. This process is all about finding and understanding problems in depth. It's more than just seeing what's missing; it's about getting a clear picture of why these issues are happening.

When L&D professionals use this strategic approach, they can really get to the heart of these problems. Understanding them well is key to creating solutions that work well and fit the specific situation. This way, the solutions are not just quick fixes but are meaningful changes that tackle the real issues.

Also, this approach helps everyone in the organization to start thinking more deeply and creatively about challenges and how to solve them. This leads to better ideas, smarter choices, and a stronger, more flexible organization.

Our needs assessment canvas collection

We’ve prepared something to support you - a collection of 8 canvases + video explainers to guide you in conducting a more strategic needs assessment process or learning how to run the needs assessment process from scratch.

Here’s what you’ll find inside:

  • Yearly Needs Assessment Score Sheet
  • Needs Assessment Layers
  • The Needs Assessment Canvas
  • Data Sources Cheat Sheet
  • Manager Interview Cheat Sheet
  • Problem Statement Canvas
  • Prioritization Exercise
  • Solution Generator Canvas

Grab it for free together with the Offbeat Fellowship or purchase it for €12 right here.

Lavinia Mehedintu has been designing learning experiences and career development programs for the past 9 years both in the corporate world and in higher education. As a Co-Founder and Learning Architect @Offbeat she’s applying adult learning principles so that learning & people professionals can connect, collaborate, and grow. She’s passionate about social learning, behavior change, and technology and constantly puts in the work to bring these three together to drive innovation in the learning & development space.

Meet Offbeat

We’re the place where L&D professionals accelerate their career. Live programs, mentorship, lots of practice and knowledge sharing.

A diverse learning community

Curated learning resources

Personalized guidance in your learning journey

Weekly live sessions

Cohort-Based Programs run by experts

1:1 mentoring relationships

Become an Offbeat Fellow →

Copyright Offbeat 2023