Analysis is the oft overlooked, yet extremely necessary forerunner of good instructional design. The results from your analyses help you diagnose the problem at hand, as well as help you develop a better understanding of your learners’ needs, the contexts within which they operate, and the tasks that they must perform.
In this article, we’ll take a look at these analyses and discuss why they’re so important for instructional design. Let’s get started.
Needs assessments tell us whether or not training is necessary to resolve the issue at hand, which makes them the most important type of analysis for instructional design. This is because professionals in our industry have a bad habit of producing training whenever it’s asked for, even when training isn’t going to solve the performance problem or produce the desired results.
We conduct needs assessments to pinpoint what’s causing an organization’s performance issues. Once we understand the problem(s) that we’re dealing with, we can design (or recommend) appropriate solutions.
Specifically, needs assessments answer two key questions:
- Why aren’t employees performing at the desired level?
- What will help them perform at the desired level?
As you can imagine, the results from the second question are informed directly by those of the first. If we find that employees aren’t performing at the desired level because of an organizational issue (such as not having access to a tool that they need), then an appropriate solution would be to address the organizational barrier — not throw training at the issue and hope that it gets resolved.
Training is reserved for a specific type of performance problem — it can only help resolve the issue when the issue is caused by a gap in knowledge or skill.
So, if employees can’t perform at the desired level because they don’t have the necessary knowledge or skill to do so, then you know that some form of training will help you make progress towards the performance goal.
Because of this, you should conduct the needs assessment before any other type of analysis. Whereas the following analyses are conducted once you’ve confirmed that training will help resolve the issue, this analysis is conducted purely to identify which interventions will help resolve the issue.
You conduct needs assessments via interviews, direct observation, questionnaires, and focus groups with the target job group and their supervisors. (The target job group consists of the employees whose performance you would like to improve.) It also may be helpful to review HR records and outputs produced by the target job group.
This wealth of data helps you identify the gap between the employees’ current performance level and the desired performance level. And, as we’ve discussed, addressing these gaps is the most reliable way to improve human performance.
Once you’ve identified a training need, you proceed with job-task analysis (JTA). This is where you analyze the tasks that employees must perform to complete their jobs. You then use this information to design practice activities that address the highest priority behaviors.
Specifically, your goal with the job-task analysis is to collect the following information:
- The tasks that employees must perform to satisfy a certain aspect of their jobs
- The frequency with which they must perform each task
- The difficulty of each task
- The importance of each task
With the frequency, difficulty, and importance data, you can identify the high-priority actions. If you identify actions that are high in frequency, difficulty, and importance, then those are the clear behaviors to target with training. However, satisfying two of these three factors can be sufficient to label an action as high priority.
Or, if the action has extreme consequences when done wrong (making it extremely important), that can sometimes be sufficient to mark it as a high-priority action.
For example, imagine that you’re conducting a JTA with nurses at a local hospital. You may determine that properly disposing of needles is a high priority action due to its importance, even if the nurses don’t have to do so often and doing so is not very difficult.
The information you garner during the JTA is extremely important for designing instruction because it suggests which behaviors you should focus the ensuing efforts on.
To conduct a JTA, you first observe or interview an employee (or employees) in the target job group and list every action that they must perform to complete a certain aspect of their jobs. Presumably, this analysis focuses on the aspect that employees are struggling with as identified by the needs assessment.
For example, if you find during your needs assessment that most data analysts at your company do not know how to use Excel to its full potential, then you would complete your JTA on the tasks associated with using Excel.
The best employees to conduct this analysis with are star employees in the target job group. Star employees perform the tasks exceptionally well, thereby demonstrating a high degree of expertise. Information from these employees shows you how the job is done correctly.
However, information from exceptionally poor-performing employees can be helpful, too. By speaking to or observing the employees that are struggling, you can see the gaps in knowledge or skill between the under-performing population and the excelling population more clearly. This information helps you decide which tasks to develop practice activities for.
As a final note, you can also use surveying tools to reach large audiences. Once you’ve developed the initial task list, you can use a tool like Questionmark or SurveyMonkey to deliver the JTA in questionnaire format. This allows employees to rate the tasks on frequency, difficulty, and importance at a time that’s convenient for them, and it also allows you to reach a much larger portion of the job group.
You conduct learner analysis (also referred to as “target audience analysis”) to learn more about the employees whose performance you hope to improve. Specifically, you collect information about the employees in the job group regarding their:
- Background knowledge
- Comfort with technology
- Preferences regarding delivery method (eLearning, face-to-face, virtual webinar)
This conversation (or questionnaire) should focus on eliciting information from the employees that will affect how they engage with the ensuing training. If you’re considering a widescale eLearning effort, for example, you want to determine how much experience your audience already has with taking courses online.
If the employees are new to eLearning, they may need some additional guidance regarding how to interact with the training.
Overall, you use the information garnered during the learner analysis to make instructional design decisions, such as those regarding:
- Level of scaffolding or guidance to provide
- Level of technology support needed
- Delivery method
When you skip this analysis, you risk frustrating the employees and adding unnecessary friction to the learning process. By ensuring that your training intervention is designed for the audience that it’s expected to serve, you maximize the likelihood of your intervention’s success.
Oftentimes, the target audiences for corporate training are extremely broad. This will rarely end well for the learners, especially if the training is meant to improve performance.
The best thing that you can do in this case is try to isolate the job groups whose performance you are aiming to improve, then conduct the ensuing analyses with each of those groups and design separate interventions.
If you do not have this option, then your best option may be to survey the different job groups and try to design for the “least-common denominator.” For example, if one of the job groups struggles severely with technology, you may decide to design the intervention as a face-to-face experience. This is a better alternative to delivering eLearning and forcing the struggling group to “figure it out.”
Designing for the least common denominator is also an appropriate option when employees within a specific job group vary widely on their preferences and proficiencies. If you cannot adjust the delivery method, then you may provide a deeper level of optional support for those who may not be as comfortable with technology.
The instructional context analysis is not as common as the others, but it has the potential to eliminate barriers to learning. To conduct this analysis, you ask yourself what context the employees will be in when they interact with the training.
For face-to-face training, you want to identify the exact location where the employees will take the training. If it’s a conference room, for example, you may seek answers to the following questions:
- What technology is available in the conference room?
- Is there a whiteboard?
- How much seating is available?
- How are the acoustics?
By analyzing the instructional context before designing any instruction, you are able to tailor your instruction with regard to any potential limitations.
For example, you aren’t going to design a 50-person workshop for a room that only comfortably fits 20 people, and you aren’t going to design a PowerPoint for the facilitator if there is no way to project that PowerPoint during the training.
When dealing with eLearning or virtual webinars, it helps to answer some of the following questions about the instructional context:
- What devices are employees using to access the training?
- What are the screen sizes of the devices?
- How fast are the employee’s internet speeds where they will be accessing the training?
- Will employees have a way to listen to audio during the training?
Consider a large bank that spent several hundred thousand dollars developing a training program for thousands of its employees. The program was in eLearning format, which shouldn’t have been a problem considering that each of the employees worked at a computer every day.
However, once the bank rolled out the training, they recognized their mistake. The employees’ computers did not have sound cards because none of their daily tasks required sound. This left them with two options: spend time and money reworking the training, or spend time and money replacing the technology.
If the designers working on this project had conducted an instructional context analysis before designing the instruction, they would have been able to account for the lack of sound cards in the computers, thereby designing a text-based eLearning program.
As you can see, we should never overlook analysis. The consequences for doing so can be extremely costly for you, your organization, and your organization’s employees.
- Needs assessments tell us if we even need training to address the performance problem.
- Job-task analyses help us identify the high-priority actions that we should focus the ensuing training on.
- Learner analyses help us make decisions regarding delivery methodology and the level of guidance and background information to provide.
- Instructional context analyses tell us what tools and technology will be available to the employees as they take the training, thereby allowing us to account for any limitations during design.
If you’d like to learn more about any other type of analysis in instructional design, feel free to request an article or other resources by contacting me.