When Asha saw Mike's name appear on her phone screen, she took a deep breath before answering. She knew the questions that would be asked, and she was clearly uncomfortable about verbalizing the answers.
Making sure that the roof doesn't leak on your next e-learning project is a two-part process. First, you have to ensure that you deliver a quality course by choosing the right tool for your content, validating the effectiveness of the instructional design, and identifying any technical constraints. Then, you need to make sure that you can update it.
Against her better judgment and under pressure from Mike, Asha had agreed to move forward with a training program and, due to a tight timeline, forgo the assessment. Thousands of dollars spent on sales training, lodging, and travel yielded no change in the sales numbers for Mike's line of business. Asha looked around her office and wondered if her days might be numbered.
We have all experienced Asha's pain to some degree, and you can probably give a list of reasons as to why we do less than a thorough job conducting a needs assessment, including
- lack of time and resources
- a training solution is the first thing that comes to mind
- inadequate knowledge about what a needs assessment is and what it involves
- absence of a "voice" for training at the stakeholders' table
- an executive mandate for training.
In the situation described earlier, both Mike and Asha thought that they were doing the right thing for the business. However, Mike acted as a patient who comes to the doctor and says, "Here is what I have, and here is what you should do!" Asha, meanwhile, was the doctor who administered the treatment without asking any questions. It is the doctor's responsibility to perform tests and provide a solution when the tests indicate that one is required.
Seven myths and seven cures
Needs assessment is the first step in developing any solution, including training. When a skills gap is detected, assessment serves as the foundation for determining instructional objectives, design, training method, and measurements of the new skills gained by participants. When other reasons for performance problems are present, other measures addressing these reasons must be provided. These processes form a continuous cycle that should always start with a needs assessment.
So, if assessment is so critical, why is it so often skipped? We set out to debunk several myths about assessments and offer practical advice to fellow training professionals.
Myth 1| Training is always the issue
Cure: Test before diagnosing. Most problems have multiple sources, and addressing a variety of root causes ensures success.
The manager of a loan documentation group requested system and process training for his team because the output of complete loan documents did not meet his expectations. During performance assessment interviews, the consultant found that the team clearly understood how to use the system. The issue was that they all printed to the same two printers, and documents would get mixed together. As a result, many specialists chose to wait to print their documents, thus slowing the process. The solution: Buy a printer for each documentation specialist.
Myth 2| Assessment takes too long
Cure: Reduce assessment cycle time. Lack of ample time is one of the most common reasons for skipping the needs assessment. Some classic approaches may indeed be time consuming and require resources. We followed some of Allison Rossett's recommendations for "shaving time off" the front end, as outlined in her book First Things Fast:
- Clarify the effort. Interview stakeholders, talk to experts, review vendor materials, and organize a quick focus group.
- Repurpose existing data. There may be something helpful that is already tracked or developed.
- Collapse the steps. Bring key stakeholders together to answer critical questions right at the beginning. In the development stage, you can try using different solution samples to solicit immediate reaction. Though not always feasible, this is tremendously effective.
A training professional was asked to provide a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality profile course to a group of individuals in the payroll department. A current capacity chart revealed that the potential reason individuals were not getting along lied in how work was distributed. A focus group confirmed the problem and underscored the fact that a personality profile course would not have resolved the issues.
Myth 3| They will never go for it
Cure: Take a collaborative approach. How do you strike a balance between business pressures and doing the right thing? The answer lies in collaborating with your line managers. Training professionals need to understand the business and provide their business partners with options and alternatives, as well as an understanding of their potential effects.
Involve the manager to create buy-in. Treat the line manager as your partner. You have the same goal: performance improvement. Make it easy for the manager to select the solution, even when a solution is outside the training area. Lay out the facts and consequences, and allow the manager to make the decision.
Quite often, the needs assessment is perceived as threatening because you are poking around in areas that could uncover a manager's shortcomings. Make it clear that you are there to help him bring his team to the required business performance, not to point the finger.
Myth 4| It's too complex
Cure: Know your craft. You aren't taught how to conduct a needs assessment unless you are earning a degree or certification; therefore, you need to educate yourself. Getting information can be overwhelming. So take it one step at a time:
- Ask the manager to define the problem: What is the target audience doing that they shouldn't be doing? What are they not doing that they should be doing? Why is that a problem?
- Identify the sources for critical information such as actual performers, managers, senior managers, and experts. Ignoring any of these individuals may result in a failure to address the real issue.
- Ask targeted and thought-provoking questions. Focus on working with the manager to uncover all possible sources of performance issues.
Myth 5| It's too costly
Cure: Choose the proper method. Choose the method that will yield the results you can trust, while using the fewest resources. Interviews will provide rich, detailed data, but they are time consuming to conduct, and resulting data may take a lot of time to summarize and analyze. Focus groups can also be a time saver, in addition to using technology for mostly quantitative data. The latest survey capabilities also provide an electronic data qualitative assessment summary. It works faster, thereby saving time and money.
Know the costs. This is especially important when the request comes from a high-level executive. A discussion of all potential costs, both hard and soft, with your key stakeholders needs to be a component of any value-added recommendation.
Myth 6| We don't have a strong voice
Cure: Take a stand, and back it up with professional credibility. Acting as a trusted advisor, you should provide a strong recommendation, taking into account your partner's key deliverables. When executives make decisions, they need to hear compelling pros and cons from the experts who support them. Make a strong business case that identifies the reasons, illustrates the value to their team, and proves that you have their best interests at heart:
- Know the business. Continuously learning about the functional areas you are dealing with will help you display business acumen, be familiar with some of the potential issues firsthand, and identify where to probe for other issues.
- Speak in the language of the partner, not in "training-speak." Know your partner's goals and objectives and what she is trying to achieve.
- Make them care. Start from their perspective by linking your recommendation to their goals.
Myth 7| There is nothing I can do; it's a mandate
Cure: Emergency triage - assess on the spot. There will be times when training is mandated, and you won't have access to the decision maker to voice your concerns. While this is considered a last-ditch or "desperate" technique, completing the assessment during the training may become your only alternative.
Besides asking participants what they want to learn in the beginning of the class, ask participants to write what they struggle with on sticky notes, and post the notes, grouping them per topic. Write out your objectives, and ask participants to identify those in which they are interested (using sticky dots or checkmarks, for example). You can do something similar in your e-learning courses as well. This will provide you with an instant visual to help you recognize where the lack of skills exists and where you should spend most of your time.
Having discussed all of this, if your manager still insists on the training solution, or if a request comes from a senior-level executive whose opinion is the law, it is still your responsibility to voice the cost of skipping a needs assessment by outlining the risks in detail and asking if they are willing to accept them. In other words, ask them how comfortable they are with getting the treatment without a proper diagnosis?
Let's revisit Asha's situation. Yes, skipping the needs assessment may initially seem to be a solution when you're in a business crisis. While a traditional approach may be time consuming and cumbersome, eliminating the assessment may cost you in lost money, wasted time, and a tarnished reputation.
Use a variety of approaches to avoid common assessment-related issues and to discover all the gaps so that you can design the right solution. Help the line managers to help you by involving them in the needs assessment. You can accomplish this by showing them the big picture, identifying risks, asking the right questions, and choosing the best-suited assessment methods so that you can collaboratively decide what the next steps should be.
Besides, most problems have multiple sources, so training alone - even when it is appropriate - may only be a part of the solution. When the stakes are high, who wants to gamble on results?