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Part I: Core Concepts and Process Models

Chapter List

The Needs Assessment
Instructional Systems Design
Evaluation: The Four Levels and ROI
Twenty Seconds into the Future: The Architecture of Continuous Learning Systems

Part Overview

Proceed by process ...

—Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1608

The Needs Assessment


Teach them to observe all things.

—Matthew 28:20

Happy the man who has learned the causes of things.

—Virgil, 20 B.C.

Definition and Components

A needs assessment is a systematic study or survey of an organization for the purpose of making recommendations, and is often employed in performance consulting to get to the cause of a performance problem. Thus typically, a needs assessment consists of a survey plus recommendations. Although the term "needs assessment" itself can refer to bald-faced promotions ("We'll do a needs assessment for your department and show you how our solution will meet all your performance needs") or simple order-taking questionnaires ("What off-the-shelf courses are needed to train our employees on the new system?"), we shall use it here to refer to the first step in performance consulting ("How can we make our call center more effective?"). A needs assessment generally consists of three parts: a survey, an analysis, and a recommendation.

Because needs assessments comprise the initial phase of many problem-solving processes, they can be part of any of the following process models: the analysis phase of the ADDIE instructional design model, the diagnosis phase of the human performance technology (HPT) model, the diagnosis phase of the organizational development (OD) model, and the diagnosis phase of general performance consulting. Thus, needs assessments go under a variety of names, including needs analysis, front-end analysis, planning needs analysis, strategic needs analysis, and training needs analysis. All refer, however, to the same thing.


The three phases of carrying out a needs assessment are design, deployment, and reporting, as follows:

I. Design: The Five Methods of Data Gathering

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.

—Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891

I must begin, not with hypotheses, but with specific instances.

—Paul Klee, 1931

The five general methods for gathering data about a business, a specific need, or a performance problem, are:

  1. Direct Observation. This consists of simply looking about with a trained and focused eye—the "environmental scan" that "believes what it sees, not what it hears." Often overlooked, direct observation is often a valuable method for gathering information for a needs analysis. Without a cool-eyed look at "the facts," prescribing solutions will accomplish little. A good needs assessor is also a good private eye.

  2. Existing Documents. Also called extant data gathering. This could include anything from mission statements and organization charts to business objectives, annual plans, production numbers, and job descriptions.

  3. Group Interviews. Small-group interviews, which may officially be called "focus groups," are often employed to get reactions to a specific proposed initiative.

  4. Individual Interviews. These can be either face-to-face interviews, or structured interviews on the phone (using a questionnaire). One interview tip: Design these oral interviews to lead with open questions (such as, "Tell me about the situation") and to end with closed questions ("Do you like this feature of the new software or not?"). The initial open questions will yield more qualitative information, and the closed questions will yield more quantitative data. Both are useful in a needs assessment.

  5. Written Surveys. These can be administered via e-mail, Web, or hardcopy, and typically ask both open questions (including "critical incidents") and closed questions (yes/no, multiple-choice, or the 1–5 Likert scale). They include the following:

    • What are your business goals?

    • What are your challenges?

    • What are the opportunities?

    • What are the barriers?

    • What are the key skills and knowledge required?

TIP: Short and Simple

start example

Keep needs assessments short and simple. Generally you don't have a Big Five consulting firm at your disposal to implement them. A small sample population representing a cross-section of your audience, plus a one-page questionnaire with less than a dozen questions, should suffice. Large-scale needs assessments can consume enormous amounts of time and money and, unless held in check, can produce such a flood of data that only analysis paralysis can result. Keep needs assessments focused and confined.

end example

II. Deployment: Interviews and the Four Respondent Groups

My job is to ask the right questions. I ask very simple questions. Managers and executives can't answer them.

—Peter Drucker, 2001

The information sources (interviewees) in a needs assessment might include the following:

  1. Target audience:

    • Exemplary performers (star performers, masters)

    • Average performers (to determine the accomplishments differential, gap, or performance improvement opportunity involved)

  2. Managers of target group

  3. Direct reports of target group

  4. Other stakeholders, sponsors, or corporate champions

III. Summary: Reports and Recommendations

The world is full of obvious things that nobody observes.

—Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902

A needs assessment generally culminates in a summary of the survey results, an identification of the problem, and general recommendations for addressing the situation. A final report might recommend coaching sessions, a new class, smoother processes between departments, or a new compensation plan. The typical components of a report are:

  • Executive summary

  • Findings

    • Compilation and analysis of survey data

    • Identification of themes from the qualitative responses (from open questions)

    • Tabulation of quantitative responses (from closed questions)

  • Strategy with recommendations and a plan

  • Appendix: Questionnaire, respondents, method used