How to Conduct a Needs Assessment

The needs assessment, also referred to as needs analysis or front-end analysis, is an essential part of any successful performance improvement initiative. This is particularly important in the current learning and development climate — many instructional designers overlook analysis, so they wind up designing training courses for issues that training courses will not solve.

If you’d like to read more about what the needs assessment is and why it’s so important, you can do so here.

Since conducting a needs assessment is such an important skill for modern instructional designers and performance consultants, this article focuses exclusively on how to conduct a needs assessment.

Setting the Context

Before conducting the needs assessment, you should have identified the business goal for your initiative. This goal includes the business metric that you’re aiming to impact and the date by which you hope to impact it by, as well as the job group who will impact it and what they must do differently to achieve the goal.

Read more about how to identify the business goal.

With this goal in hand, you’ll have a good idea of who needs to perform differently and a vague idea about what they need to do differently. At this point, you’re ready to build your contact list for the analysis.

Identify your contacts

The people that you connect with in the organization are invaluable to your analysis - they provide rich data that helps you make important decisions later on. Let’s take a look at the people that you will want to build relationships with:

The Client: Whether you’re an external consultant or an internal instructional designer, you should know who your client is. This is the person who has the budget and influence to resolve the performance issue. They have a large stake in getting the issue solved, and they likely have a (limited) understanding of what’s causing the issue and how it may be resolved.

Star Employee(s): The star employees are those that are performing their jobs extremely well. These people will serve as valuable resources for showing you how the job should be performed, and they can offer insight about how they overcame challenges to grow to the point that they they’re at now. They may even have unique workflow efficiencies that they’ve come up with on their own and that their managers may be unaware of.

Typical Employee(s): You should connect with employees who are performing at or near the average level of performance. This will give you a pulse on how most employees in the target job group are performing.

Poor-performing Employee(s): It’s good to reach out to some employees in the job group who are performing poorly and struggling with the job tasks. This will grant you insights about the barriers that employees are facing.

Direct managers: What you can’t get from the employees themselves, you will be able to get from their managers. You’ll want to build relationships with managers of both poor-performing employees and star employees. This will help you uncover what impact managers may be having on the performance of their employees.

Direct subordinates: If your target audience are those in managerial roles, then you will want to speak to employees that those managers oversee.

Supplemental Contacts: Depending on the specifics of the performance issue at hand, you may want to reach out to certain subsets of people. For example, if you’re trying to reduce employee turnover, you may want to speak to employees who have recently left or who have given their notice. If you’re dealing with a poorly designed onboarding process, it may be helpful to connect with people who have just been hired and are about to get onboarded. Or, finally, if you’re dealing with a large number of customer complaints, it may help to reach out to customers of employees in the target job group.

If you don’t already have connections at the organization, you’ll want to enlist your client’s help by asking them to send introductions and point you in the right direction to make the necessary connections.

At the least, you’ll want to collect contact information for each of your contacts. It would also be a good idea at this stage to send introductions - let them know who you are, give them some details about the project you’re working on, and ask them if it would be okay to communicate with them further regarding the project. Asking the client to send these introductions can also help make people more likely to comply.

Ideally, you will have at least two points of contact for each of the contact types listed above (except for the client). This avoids the risk of relying on a single data source for your information, and it will give you a much better picture of the performance issues and their potential solutions.

Clarify Facts and Goals

Once you’ve identified your contacts, it’s time to dig deeper into how employees are currently performing.

You may have done some of this work while you were identifying the business goal, but during this stage you can get much more specific about the performance issue(s) at hand. Whereas identifying the business goal elucidates the business gap, clarifying the facts and goals during this stage elucidates the performance gap.

Let’s take a look at the two primary questions during this phase. For the purposes of this article, we will also assume that we are working towards developing a model that outlines the desired performance of employees.

What is the desired level of performance?

First, you want to identify which behaviors are associated with the desired level of performance. Star employees and the managers of star employees are excellent sources of information for the desired level of performance.

To start, you should work with two or more star employees to identify the behaviors that contribute most to their success in the role. The method that you use for doing this will depend on several factors, including the size of the target audience, the time and resources that you have available, the degree of access that you have to the target audience, and the group dynamics at play. Consider the following methods:

  • One-on-one interviews are good when you want your participants to speak openly about the tasks and issues at hand. As long as you present yourself as a neutral force, they should not feel pressure to answer dishonestly or withhold information. The down-side to this approach is that it is time consuming - it’s unrealistic to conduct interviews with hundreds of employees.
  • Direct observation is an excellent approach for seeing how employees complete their day-to-day tasks. Better yet, you can combine direct observation with interview techniques to learn more about why employees are taking the actions that you see them take.
  • Focus groups are similar to one-on-one interviews, but they consist of two or more participants. This approach is good for sparking group discussions and gaining multiple points of view about a particular task or issue. You must take extra care with this approach to ensure that everyone feels comfortable participating and speaking openly.
  • Questionnaires are perfect when you’d like to collect data from the entire target audience or a large sample of the target audience. These surveys, often developed in tools like SurveyMonkey or Questionmark, are easy to deliver to participants and they take much less time to administer than interviews or direct observations. They also grant you access to a larger portion of the target audience. For example, whereas you may only be able to interview a handful of star employees, you may be able to send a questionnaire to hundreds of star employees in the job group at large.

A typical best practice for dealing with large target audiences is to spend 1-3 days interviewing and observing a few star employees. Once you’ve characterized their behaviors, uncovered the logic behind their decision-making, and identified the performances that contribute the most to their success, you should have a solid understanding of the desired level of performance.

Confirm this understanding with the managers of both star employees and typical employees, and work to identify the behaviors that contribute most to the business goal. If the managers are unable to comment on this, host a focus group meeting with a star employee, the manager of a star employee, the manager of a typical employee, and the client. Outline the highest priority behaviors that you’d like to see all employees exhibit, then move on to the next step.

How are most employees in the business unit currently performing?

Now that you know how employees should be performing, it’s time to determine how they’re currently performing. Pulling from the concept of an IS analysis from Performance Consulting by Robinson et al., we’re primarily concerned with the frequency that people must perform each task and the perceived difficulty to perform it.

Speak with typical employees, poor-performing employees, and the managers of each group. Observe some of them as well. This data will help you more clearly see the difference between how the star employees perform and how the majority of the employees perform.

To reach a larger portion of the target audience, design a questionnaire that lists each of the key behaviors. Allow participants to rate each behavior in terms of its difficulty and frequency. To avoid the risks of self-reporting, also send these questionnaires to the managers of employees in the job group. If the managers are overseeing a large number of employees, you can ask them to complete the questionnaires on behalf of just a few of the employees in the target audience.

Finally, you will need qualitative data to support the story told by these rating-based questions. You can include open-response questions in the survey; for example, when a respondent selects 4 or 5 in terms of difficult, you can show a conditional question: “Why is this task difficult?” This will help you better isolate the performance issue(s) in the next step.

As this data comes in, you will be able to see whether or not employees are performing the desired behaviors, as well as the general perceived difficulty of each behavior. At this point, you are ready to begin bridging the gap.

Bridge the gap

During this phase, you answer the two key questions of the needs assessment: why aren’t people performing at the desired level and what will help them do so? If you can answer these questions accurately, then you have a clear road map that you can use to bridge the gap between current performance and desired performance.

If you’ve founded your analysis on behaviors that will help contribute to the business goal, then your ensuing efforts are likely to improve organizational performance, too.

Why aren’t people performing at the desired level?

By this point, you will likely have some ideas about why people aren’t performing at the desired level. However, we want to iron out these causes more clearly. To do this, you should draft a series of interview questions using the data that you collected during the previous phase. You can then use these questions to spark further discussion with employees in the target job group and their managers. You want to figure out what makes the difficult behaviors difficult.

For example, if several people have mentioned that issues with the technology make certain tasks more difficult than they should be, then you should draft some questions to get to the root of the issue with the technology. Is the problem with the technology itself, or is the problem that people don’t know how to use the technology adequately? The more specifically that you can define the performance issues, the more appropriate solutions you will be able to recommend.

As you’re exploring the performance issues more deeply, identify whether each issue is based on the environment, a lack of knowledge, a lack of skill, or a lack of motivation. Let’s consider each in more detail.

Environmental Issues

Environmental issues are caused by factors external to the employees. For example, a lack of physical resources, inadequate tools or technology to complete the task, loud noises or other physical barriers in the work environment, inadequate rewards or recognition, and more are all environmental factors. These types of issues must be solved by avenues other than training.

Lack of knowledge or skill

If you find that a performance issue is caused by a lack of employee knowledge or skill, then you know that you’ve found a situation where training can help. You know you have this type of issue on your hands when people say that certain tasks are difficult because they don’t know how to do them or they “were never taught how.”

You can also observe or interview average employees and compare their performance to that of the star employees. When you see them do something or discuss a certain decision, ask them why they do it that way. If you notice that they cannot justify or explain it, and they do not know how to do it better, then you may be able to train them to get closer to the level of the experts.

Lack of motivation

You’re dealing with lack of motivation when employees know what they should do, but they just don’t want to. By asking questions that elicit employees’ knowledge and skill, as well as questions about the frequency with which they perform tasks, you can likely gain insight regarding their level of motivation to complete a given task.

Don’t be afraid to ask “why?” If you notice that someone knows how to do something but doesn’t do it often, ask why that’s the case. These conversations are better suited for one-on-one interviews or focus groups with like-minded peers, as employees are less likely to speak openly about motivational issues in front of their managers.

While information campaigns can help increase motivation (such as those regarding the effect that performing the tasks correctly will have on the end-users or customers), motivational issues are often caused by inadequate compensation, toxic corporate cultures, or environmental barriers mentioned above.

As you can see, your work during this phase is to identify and categorize the performance issues. Sometimes, the issue may have a single source. For example, everyone may know what to do and how to do it, but the technology just cannot keep up.

More often, however, there will be multiple issues hindering performance. It’s your job to bring these to the surface. Once you’ve done so, you’re ready to move on to the next question.

What will help them perform at the desired level?

Once you know what’s causing the performance issues, you can recommend appropriate solutions. If you’ve made it this far, then congratulations! It gets easier from here.

Your main priority is to match the types of solutions that you’re prescribing to the types of issues that you’re facing. As an instructional designer or training team, your priority will be on the issues caused by a lack of knowledge or skill.

However, you will still want to deliver a report listing your findings and, if you have ideas about how to solve them, present those as well. This report should be delivered to your client, and you can work collaboratively with your client to discuss potential solutions to the issues that you uncovered.

With the knowledge and skill gaps identified, you will want to devote ensuing training efforts to bridging those gaps. At this point you can proceed by conducting a full job-task analysis, interviewing SMEs, and conducting action mapping sessions. The analysis is complete and you’re ready to design the training.

How to Conduct a Needs Assessment Wrap-up

If you’ve spent time researching this topic, you’ve likely found that there are many options presented for how to conduct a needs assessment. However, the core of all of them are the same. You must determine what’s causing the performance issues, and you should only design training when you’ve isolated the problem as a gap in employee skill or knowledge.

Your best data sources are the employees and their managers, and you should interview employees who perform poorly, averagely, and exceptionally to get a feel for how they should be performing and the barriers that are in their way.