When was the last time you did a needs analysis? When was the last time you should have done a needs analysis?

ATD released some interesting data recently. Out of the organizations surveyed, which employed digital learning services, only 56% said they did needs analysis for learning projects, 37% said they did not, and the remaining 7% were not sure. For organizations that did needs analysis, the following table shows, top to bottom, the most frequently used methods of data gathering, compared to what they perceived as the most effective methods of data gathering.

Surveys are quick and easy, but they are also among the least effective methods. What’s striking is that the most effective methods were the ones that involve personal contact and relationship building, not only with SMEs, but more importantly with potential learners. What skill gaps do they perceive? What additional job support is needed from their perspective? Interviews and focus groups are obviously great, but don’t underestimate the usefulness of observation, especially when it’s framed as shadowing or “can I tag along with you on this job and ask a few questions?” Surveys are typically anonymous, which is often seen as a plus, but there is a downside too in that they can often raise suspicion. “Why are you asking all these questions?” “Is the company getting ready to reorganize and lay us off?” “What does management want to hear that will protect my job?” The methods that involve personal interaction help build trust and generate honest feedback.

When it comes to gathering data for a needs analysis, we typically draw on a number of sources. Of the organizations surveyed, 78% said they used SMEs, 71% used learners’ managers, 69% used learners, 60% used senior leaders, and 56% used previous training evaluation results. As I mentioned above, it’s really important to involve the learners, and almost a third of the time, their voice goes unheard. They typically want to help fix the problem because they feel the consequences of the problem.

So why don’t more organizations conduct needs analyses for training projects? Those surveyed cited lots of reasons including lack of time, lack of resources, getting buy-in from senior leaders, and difficulty in convincing others to do a needs analysis. The overwhelming number one response, however, was “stakeholders believe they already know the needs.” Have you ever run into that one before? I certainly have. It’s tough to convince stakeholders that they might not know the extent of the needs, or that they are trying to solve a non-training problem by throwing training at it. (Are you familiar with Gilbert’s Six Boxes? That’s a great tool for showing a client what problems can be solved with training and what problems require adjusting other job aspects.)

Mastech Digital is a leading digital transformation services company with a robust practice dedicated to the intricacies of digital learning services. When we scope projects, we often propose starting with a short analysis phase to validate the “needs analysis” that was already done.  Sometimes that’s as little as 20-40 hours, depending on the project. It’s a relatively small investment for the client, but it allows us to confirm what the stakeholders believed or discover the extent of the actual needs and adjust the project scope accordingly.


Author James Wallace 
James Wallace
Consultant Manager