How to conduct a training needs assessment
As I completed my usual Saturday morning cleaning ritual, I came across some of the most random items around my house!
A receipt for an outfit I’m probably (not) going to return.
Some AAA batteries my husband swears still work.
13 loose pens, 6 quarters, and an old polaroid photo of my pup dressed as Santa Paws.
Naturally, I figured, “I’m probably going to need these someday,” so obviously, I couldn’t throw them away. The problem was they had no permanent place to live.
So you know what I did? I walked straight to the kitchen and stuffed them inside my “junk drawer.”
You know the one. That catch-all drawer overflowing with a mess of takeout menus, to-do lists, and other “important” items that have long been forgotten.
Now, with a little reorganization and strategic planning, the junk drawer could be a functional storage place tailored to meet your specific needs. (That’s what it’s designed to do, after all). Yet instead of maximizing its potential, we simply add to this roll-out repository whenever we don’t know what to do with an item.
I know. You’re probably wondering, “What the heck does my junk drawer have to do with corporate training for my employees?”
Well, many organizations take a similar approach to their corporate training programs.
How can a training needs assessment help with “the corporate training junk drawer”?
Much like we use our “junk drawer” as a quick fix for everything we don’t have the time to sort through or store properly, many businesses use eLearning as a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem they encounter in the workplace.
- If the sales team isn’t hitting their quarterly targets? Schedule more training.
- If employees are struggling to meet deadlines? Schedule more training.
- If employees aren’t meeting performance standards? You get where I’m going with this.
While eLearning can be a highly effective way to upskill and reskill your employees, most organizations don’t take the time to analyze what their training needs actually are. Instead, companies in the U.S. spend over $70 billion a year on broad-spectrum corporate training that makes very little impact. They often take a generic approach to eLearning without considering why training should be conducted or how it links to/impacts their organizational goals.
It’s no wonder 75% of employees see no measurable improvement in their business performance after completing training.
They’re simply completing training for training’s sake.
Without strategic planning, even the best online training systems can become a repository of haphazard information your employees don’t know what to do with. In other words, it becomes a corporate junk drawer.
So how do you ensure your corporate online training is effective?
In this article, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about training needs assessments, including
- What a training needs assessment is and the different types of TNAs
- The organizational benefits associated with conducting a training needs assessment
- Some of the potential pitfalls you may encounter during the TNA process (and how to avoid them)
- When is the best time to conduct a training needs assessment
- How to assess your current training program
- And, of course, our recommended steps to follow when completing training needs assessment
Keep reading to journey with me through the wonderful world of training needs assessments.
(Or, skip ahead to the topic that interests you – that’s fine too!)
But, before we can get to the good stuff (like how a training needs assessment can positively impact your business), we must first understand what a training needs assessment is. So let’s get into it!
What is a training needs assessment (TNA)?
A training needs assessment (TNA) is exactly what it sounds like: a process that assesses whether a training need exists in the corporate workplace.
The purpose of a TNA is to identify key performance requirements and the knowledge and skills needed to meet those requirements. It then helps administrators pinpoint gaps between an employee’s performance level and the competency standard established for their roles within the organization.
Rather than assume that all employees need the same training (or any training at all), a training needs assessment helps specify what gaps exist, the cost associated with addressing them, and which gaps require immediate attention. With this crucial data, management teams can make informed decisions about the best ways to address weaknesses among individual employees or teams.
Simply put, a training needs assessment discovers where knowledge or skills need improvement and where they are missing entirely. It establishes “what currently is" to achieve "what should be."
Wait – is a TNA the same as a training needs analysis?
As you navigate through the learning and development world, you may hear people use the terms “training needs assessment” and “training needs analysis” interchangeably.
But can I let you in on a little secret? They’re actually two separate processes.
While a training needs assessment helps determine if there are gaps that are preventing an organization from reaching its desired performance goals, a training needs analysis goes beyond that.
Once your training needs assessment establishes that there is indeed a skill or knowledge gap, the training needs analysis process helps answer important questions like
- Why is training needed?
- Who needs training?
- What is the desired performance outcome, and what type of training will meet that need?
- When is the best time to conduct training, and how does specific training align with organizational priorities?
So, why are they often described as the same thing? I know it’s so confusing. That’s because they function in tandem to address performance issues.
The difference between a training needs assessment and a training needs analysis (in a practical sense)
To help illustrate the difference between the two terms, let’s take a look at how these processes work together to address performance issues within your (imaginary) sales team.
You’re coming to the end of another quarter, and your leadership team notices that the sales team is struggling to meet its goals… again.
You get called in to organize more training. The problem is, this is the third training session in a matter of months. It’s clear that a general eLearning course hasn’t and likely won’t solve the issue. So how do we improve the sales team’s performance?
Step one: Conduct a training needs assessment
This will help you to determine what’s working and what isn’t. It will also help set a baseline for the team’s current performance level and where it needs to be.
Step two: Analyze performance gaps
Once you establish that there is a competency gap and clearly outline your performance goals, a training needs analysis will help you zero in on the individual knowledge, skills, and abilities of the sales team. You’ll identify who is struggling, why they’re struggling, and which performance gaps you need to tackle with training (i.e., product knowledge, strategic prospecting skills, etc.) This data will help you tailor your training strategy to meet your employee's needs, resulting in more effective eLearning and better results.
In essence, a training needs assessment is the “what” (what the organization needs) and a training needs analysis is the “why and how” (the root cause of performance gaps and how to close them).
What are the different types of training needs assessments?
Now I’d like you to take a moment to reflect on your workforce. I want you to consider the way your employees engage and perform within their individual roles.
- Are your employees as engaged and productive as you need them to be?
- Are they consistently producing results that meet or exceed your expectations?
- Have they mastered all of the skills required for their roles?
If you answered “no” or “not sure” to any of these questions, a training needs assessment may be exactly what you need to pinpoint gaps in your team's performance. If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, a TNA might help highlight unconscious gaps (the ones you can’t see.)
The beauty of a training needs assessment is that it addresses performance concerns from all levels, starting with a bird's eye view of your entire organization and moving straight down to the individual level.
At the organizational level, a training needs assessment evaluates the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) of the entire company and how those KSAs align with existing business goals. It gives management teams a snapshot of the workforce's current skills and competencies and helps drive the creation of robust training programs to fill critical skill gaps.
At the job level, a TNA evaluates an employee’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in contrast to the required standards for different roles within their team or department. This type of analysis is required when a role changes or impacts other areas within the business. An operational analysis can also involve developing a pipeline of capabilities to ensure continuous development opportunities for employees.
A training needs assessment at an individual level assesses an employee’s ability to perform the assigned job or tasks compared to the expected standards for their role.
The gap between their current and required competencies helps administrators identify specific training needs and recommend tailor-made learning and development programs to fill these gaps. This ensures that the training provided only targets the KSAs that specific employees have to improve on – saving everyone else from completing unnecessary courses.
What are some benefits of conducting a training needs assessment?
In addition to creating more effective training programs for your employees, conducting a training needs assessment can also be incredibly beneficial at an organizational level.
Planning and developing training requires a lot of time, effort, and resources. So why waste it on the wrong kind of training? Completing a training needs assessment establishes where there are performance gaps and ensures you invest in the most relevant training. Not only does relevant, on-the-job training help increase employee knowledge retention, but aligning training with business needs can help organizations reach their business goals and objectives.
Fills training gaps
Where improved employee performance can increase organizational growth and success, training gaps can detract from it. Knowledge and skill gaps impede your employees’ ability to effectively carry out their job functions, resulting in critical errors that can cost your business time and money. Examining your training needs helps identify these gaps so you can address them.
Increases employee engagement (and training effectiveness)
A training needs assessment produces a list of employees who need specific training. This output allows organizations to tailor their eLearning courses to fit individual learner requirements. As we discussed in our adaptive learning article, the more personalized the learning experience is to the employee, the more they engage with the material, and the more effective the training program is.
Prioritizes most relevant training
You probably have a laundry list of training courses you’d love to implement within your team. But, as with most lists in life, you just can’t do it all. At least not right away. A TNA helps you pinpoint which training needs are most important so you can target your eLearning toward improving areas that will deliver the most value to your business.
Increases visible training ROI
One of the most frustrating tasks for a corporate learning team is demonstrating visible training ROI. However, a training needs assessment makes this daunting task that much easier. It answers questions about the objectives behind a particular training program, the metrics used to measure outcomes, the skills gaps to be addressed during training, and how employee performance goals will be assessed.
Defining the purpose of training programs and implementing courses based on skill gaps makes it easier for learning teams to quantify (and demonstrate) the importance of training and the performance improvement that comes with it.
With so many benefits to performing a training needs assessment, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were itching to conduct one right now! But before you dive in head first, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this process has some drawbacks too.
(I’m here to help you make the most informed decision, after all!)
What are some potential pitfalls you may encounter when conducting a TNA (and how do you mitigate them?)
Just like decluttering your junk drawer, the truth is, getting your training needs assessment set up correctly can be a huge undertaking that requires a significant amount of effort on your part. However, performing a training needs assessment can be a transformative experience full of benefits for your organization.
So, if you decide that training needs assessment is exactly what your organization needs, I created this list to help you prepare for (and successfully mitigate) some of the realities that come with conducting a TNA.
It can be time-consuming
I get it – the thought of sitting down and spending so much time planning before you even start organizing a training session may not feel like a good use of your time. And I won’t lie to you, getting your training needs assessment set up correctly can be a time-consuming process. But in the end, the investment will be worth it!
Not only will you have a clear idea of the exact training your staff needs, but you’ll also know what training you don’t need to offer (which is great for your organization’s bottom line!)
It requires management involvement
An effective training needs assessment requires a LOT of input from your organization’s management team – and if they’re too busy or don’t see the point in getting involved in the process, they may hesitate to get onboard, buy-in to the process, or give it the attention it deserves.
However, their input clarifies the performance level that management expects employees to meet. It also ensures that role-specific training for each department accurately reflects the skills employees need to do their jobs correctly. Clearer expectations for employees yield better performance results.
You must update data regularly
I hate to break the news: training needs assessments aren’t a one-and-done deal. This process should be repeated annually (or sooner if you feel it’s necessary) to ensure that your training programs are informed by the most up-to-date information possible. The upside? Conducting regular training needs assessments:
- Ensures you remain aware of your organization’s evolving training needs
- Helps you adapt eLearning as your employees' knowledge and skills develop
- Ensure employees are working with up-to-date skills, resulting in the best results for your business
- Allows you and your leadership team to measure the effectiveness of your training programs
- And, as you conduct frequent training assessments, it can be less of a time investment each time
I can’t deny that a training needs assessment requires quite a bit of extra effort – but in the end, it can save your organization time, money, and resources by ensuring that the right training is delivered to the right people in the best way for the best results. Isn’t that pay off so much greater?
Now I know there’s a lot of data involved in completing a training needs assessment, and it may be incredibly tempting to skip straight to course planning. I mean, jumping ahead should save you time, resources, and effort, right?
But, implementing training without a clear purpose can lead to learning and development solutions that address the wrong competencies, the wrong people, and utilize the wrong learning methods.
Why is it important to complete a training needs assessment before designing your training program?
Conducting a training needs assessment before launching a training program helps lay the necessary groundwork for understanding your organization’s need for specific training programs and ensures you make informed decisions based on measurable outcomes to achieve better ROI.
As I mentioned, performing training needs assessments periodically is important to yield the best results. TNAs can occur after hiring, during performance reviews, succession planning, or when an employee’s role changes.
Okay – so far, we’ve gone over what training needs assessment is. We’ve explored why it’s so important to incorporate a TNA into your learning and development strategy. We’ve discussed all the benefits (and drawbacks) associated with this process.
But the real question is how do you successfully conduct a TNA, particularly within a pre-existing training program?
How can you assess your current training program?
Well, let’s go back to the junk drawer for a second. I’m staring at mine, overflowing with clutter as I type. How do you turn it into a functional storage place for your most important items?
You have to clean it out.
- First, you must assess its contents and dispose of all the real junk. Throw out all those old receipts, loose papers, and items you simply don’t need.
- Then, you create a strategic plan linked to its new purpose. What’s the best way to organize the drawer to maximize efficiency and convenience? What tools do I need to accomplish this task?
- Finally, you implement your new organizational strategy to meet a specific goal and achieve your desired result. Voila! A clean, clutter-free drawer.
I bring this up because auditing your current training program requires the same process.
You have to stop and take stock of the situation – which may require you to review each of the learning aids, software platforms, and courses that make up your learning ecosystem.
Assess what you have that is working, what isn’t, and where the gaps are in both skill and knowledge, based on any metrics available to you whether through learner feedback, quizzes, or job performance data.
Then make a goal-driven plan, and use what you discovered during your training needs assessment as the blueprint, to reorganize your training program for the best possible outcome.
Your learners don’t need to stop taking the training assigned to them!
As you complete your evaluation of the existing training, you and your fellow training team administrators, content creators, and training managers can reorganize and revise the training process to include TNAs. At the same time, your employees continue their eLearning courses uninterrupted.
The goal is to implement the TNA process into your training program as seamlessly and successfully as possible.
What are our recommended steps to follow when completing a training needs assessment?
Of course, I don’t want you to just roll the dice and leave your training needs assessment up to chance. So, if you just added “Conduct TNA” to your to-do list, here are four steps I would highly recommend you follow when completing your training needs assessment.
Define your organizational goals
Before conducting a TNA, you must ask yourself a few crucial questions.
- Why do you need an assessment?
- What are your business’ primary vision, mission, and organizational goals?
- What results do you hope to achieve from this process?
Answering these questions will help you determine if training is the best way to achieve your organizational goals or if performance issues are best addressed through other means.
Identify your employee’s specific performance issues
If you determine that training is indeed required, the next step is matching your organizational goals with specific performance-related issues. This involves comparing the current performance level of an employee or team and your desired competency level. Measuring this difference will help you identify key areas for improvement and inform the kind of training required to address them. The best way to analyze these gaps is by gathering as much data as possible.
Some useful training needs assessment tools to help with this process include:
HR records can include valuable data like job descriptions, job competencies, exit interviews, and performance evaluations. You can use this information to gain insight into the reason for competency gaps, which can inform how you conduct subsequent training.
Individual interviews may be conducted with employees, supervisors, senior managers, clients/customers, or outside vendors to help identify the gaps that an organization needs to address as well as new training opportunities.
Focus groups allow administrators to question a group of individuals about training needs simultaneously. The participants brainstorm all the training needs they can think of and highlight the most important ones. This free flow of ideas, usually moderated by someone with a background in the focus group process, helps management prioritize and allocate resources to necessary training first.
(Note: The best results occur with a department or group of employees with similar training needs.)
Employee surveys, questionnaires, and self-assessments
Targeted questions are a great way to collect information about employees' level of skill and knowledge. Start with questions like
- What are your personal learning objectives?
- What skills would help improve your performance?
- What obstacles are impacting your performance now?
Not only does employee feedback provide a high-level view of workforce performance (which leadership teams appreciate), but it also offers a micro-level view of departmental gaps and the barriers that may stand in the way of an employee carrying out their work.
With direct observation, the supervisors can obtain first-hand knowledge and information about the job being analyzed and employee performance.
Evaluate knowledge and skill gaps and training investment priorities
The third step in the process is defining the specific skills you need to get where you want to be to achieve your training goals. The more specific you are in creating your list of training needs, the more effective your training programs will be. Your training needs list can be evaluated against an organization's current and future goals, budget, legal compliance obligations, deadlines, and available resources. The corporate learning team can then prioritize the most important training.
Report results and recommend a training plan
The last step is to report the findings from the training needs assessment and make recommendations for short and long-term training plans. Your report should include a summary of why and how the assessment was completed, the methods used, the people involved, and your training recommendations.
Following these four steps will help maximize the data you yield from your training needs assessment and help you create the most effective strategy to improve performance issues within your organization!
Effectively improve your employee or team performance with a TNA
It’s funny because, as we near the end of this article, I’m inspired to clean out my junk drawer! Sure, it’s a time-consuming project that will likely take the rest of the day to complete, but as we’ve learned, sometimes the benefits of reorganizing an ineffective system are just too great to pass up!
With a little extra effort, I can turn my junk drawer into a treasure drawer full of useful tools to meet my ever-changing needs. And the same applies to how your organization approaches training.
Conducting a training needs assessment can be a significant investment, but it can also yield significant rewards. Implementing TNAs into your L&D strategy can improve workplace performance, close knowledge and skill gaps, boost employee engagement, produce a significant ROI (in both time and finances), and promote positive growth within your organization.
(Sounds like a win to me!)
So, if you’re just as inspired as I am and want to learn more about implementing a training needs assessment within your organization, feel free to drop us a line – our eLearning advisors are happy to answer any questions you may have. Perhaps, you'd rather to continue learning at a self-directed pace on your own. Or if you’re ahead of the game and have already completed your needs assessment, check out our article “How can I use a training needs analysis to improve learning?” to take the next step towards identifying and improving your eLearning outcomes.
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