Overheard at a recent training conference…

“I’d be more successful if I didn’t worry so much about needs assessment and just gave them good courses.  The business is moving too fast for a big study  The only ones complaining are the instructional design group”

It was a conversation between training managers.  It’s only one conversation but you may be noticing, as I am, that that needs assessment efforts in companies are waning.  Is there a trend here?

If so, it doesn’t jibe with this one from a 2000 research report called HRD Trends Worldwide (by Jack Phillips) that identified Needs Assessment and Evaluation at the #2 trend.  From the book:

“Organizations are committing more resources in the form of both time and money towards needs assessment and analysis to ensure that training and development programs are necessary and are linked to business improvement”

So whats going on?  Certainly the era of the large scale organization wide needs assessment is over.  On its way out, it tried to get fast.  In First things Fast: A Handbook of Performance Analysis, Allison Rossett proposed that we:

“…reduce the daunting size of the effort by carving the planning process into more manageable and iterative bite sizes: one swift targeted bite up front, and then subsequent mouthfuls of assessment for subsequent associated programs”

Now I’m not sure if even the “subsequent mouthfuls” are happening.  The pressure to roll out programs yesterday and the shift to rapid learning design have taken a big bite out the time that was allocated for an assessment to link to business and performance needs (or decide that another approach altogether would be more effective).  It begs the question– on what data ARE we basing the development of our learning programs?

HCM systems are individualizing needs assessment

Perhaps the success of HCM systems (LMS, and Competency Management Systems) have reduced the need for the needs assessments of the past.  The best of these systems individualize the needs assessment process by providing tools for employees to assess themselves (or their subordinates) against job based work standards to identify skill needs…which is really what the needs assessment was meant to do.

Needs assessment as business planning

Or maybe we have just gotten much better at identifying strategic learning needs during the planning process.  Some learning functions are now very good at proactively partnering with their business line customers throughout the year to identify learning and performance needs that drive learning initiatives.  Relationship Managers and internal Learning Consultants are serving this role.  So what was once implemented as a “once in a while” big internal study has become integrated into the planning processes of the best learning functions.

Beware fast but futile

I don’t think these best practices are commonplace however.  Those organizations that withdraw into simply providing learning programs quickly on demand, without the guidance of a needs analysis, may be seen as “responsive” in the short run, but in the end will struggle to add real value to their organizations.

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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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