Needs Assessment

Posted by on Sep 29, 2008 in Featured Articles | 0 comments

A lot is at stake when a company decides to invest in ongoing training.  Instructional designers and trainers have a lot of responsibility and need to use appropriate tools when deciding the most efficient means of training employees.  To make this process easier and more cost effective, many companies adopt the use of a needs assessment to focus their training endeavors.

Why Would a Company Require a Needs Assessment?

A need can be defined simply as: “Something required or wanted; a requisite.” (   Today’s businesses require a lot of assets to be successful but need a reliable means of deciding which specific skills and/or products will help them to successfully meet these goals.  They must also be able to determine a hierarchy of importance when dealing with these needs to assure that the most important task at hand will be dealt with in a timely manner.  Instructional Designers are many times called into play when dealing with these matters and should be comfortable with the process of developing a needs assessment.
A successful needs assessment can effectively hone in on key factors and establish valid reasoning to support the use of company funding for training and/or supplies.  With that said, we will take a look at the questions to keep in mind when deciding on whether or not to develop a needs assessment and follow up with some ideas on how the process of assessment works.

When is a Needs Assessment Appropriate?

There are several reasons why a company or manager would decide to develop a needs assessment.  On a broad scale, an assessment may be needed to determine functionality of employees across the board.  In this case, the assessment would deal with overall performance of tasks related to whatever good or service the company provides.  This is known as a macro needs assessment.  The main question to keep in mind here would be “How can we do what we do more efficiently?”  In the business world, time is money and generally when cuts need to be made, the first place companies look to is labor costs.  People are an “x” variable in business, so a needs assessment could take the guesswork out of making appropriate changes in the workplace.  A needs assessment could also be used on a much smaller scale by focusing on a specific task.  For example, a supervisor has noted that a particular project takes longer than it should.  The idea here is to look at the symptoms of the problem and react accordingly by developing a needs assessment that addresses this particular process.  This is referred to as a micro needs assessment.

Where to Start

A successful needs assessment begins by targeting the group of people that require improvement.  Management will be looking for a group that displays a lower than expected performance level.  Generally, this will be handled on a departmental level, unless employees all perform similar tasks.  That is not to say that multiple departments cannot be assessed in the same study but rather that groups not performing equivocal tasks should be handled with consideration.

How the Assessment should be Conducted

After identifying the target group, it will then be necessary to make preparations for gathering data.  Just like any other type of research, one must decide what sample of people they will be testing.  The following briefly describes each type of sampling:
•    Judgmental Sampling: The most convenient subjects are used.
•    Random Sampling: Each person has an equal chance of being selected for study.
•    Systematic Sampling: Subjects are mathematically selected by taking a percentage of the population and “systematically” or by number choosing lots out of each group.  Now that the decision is made as to the appropriate sampling procedure, the person conducting the needs assessment will need to have a lot of interaction with various employees to produce a series of data gathering questions and/or methods.

At this stage, it is vital for the proctor to keep in mind the main goal of the needs assessment and ask probing questions or present relevant information.  There are a variety of methods for collecting this data, they are as follows:
•    Interviews: Interviews can be done in groups or in a one on one situation.  In this method, questions and conversation unfold the needed data.
•    Direct Observation: Direct observation is pretty much exactly what it states.  The people gathering the data observe employees in action while taking notes about performance and details on methods used to complete work related tasks.
•    Indirect Examination: Employees are not directly observed but rather examined by looking at indicators such as work samples or records.
•    Questionnaires: Information is gathered via survey questions.
•    Task Analysis General mode of operation is carried out and analyzed.
•    Informant Groups: Key players that are knowledgeable about the current system are broken into groups to discuss possible problems and/or solutions.
•    Critical Incident: Management identifies critical factors within work related tasks to help collect data.
•    Competency Assessment: This method narrows down the critical characteristics of key performers.

Which type of data collection process you choose to go with would greatly depend on what type of problem your experiencing, how much time you have to solve the problem and also how much funding you have available to complete the assessment.

I Have My Data.  Now What?

The last step in the process requires using all of the data gathered thus far and putting it into practical use.  Instructional Designers should be able to pinpoint key factors in the data that will help them to use the information gathered successfully.  At first, this can become a Herculean task but experience is a great teacher.  After getting a couple of assessments under your belt, you will find that important information will begin to stick out like a sore thumb.
The data also needs to be summarized in some form to facilitate demonstrating the outcome of the needs assessment to management.  The needs assessment should directly reflect the shortcomings of current training methods and procedures and also pave the way for future plans regarding instruction and/or materials.  If implemented successfully, a needs assessment can be a useful tool for today’s instructional designer.  It can also save companies and/or schools a lot of man hours by limiting human resource changes to only those that are focused and necessary.

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