In January of 2004, I became a course developer in a new e-Learning department for a health care systems provider. This industry leader was searching for ways to reduce the classroom time for clients while continuing to provide quality learning.

At first, I was charged with developing courses on two problem areas for our customers: Statements and Reports. While the Statements courses went well, those on Reports were an immediate problem. There was little documentation, other than a list of reports with uninformative descriptions. The subject matter experts on the team did not work with the reporting process, and those outside the team were too suspicious of this new department to help. Without any other way to identify performance objectives, I asked my manager about doing a needs analysis.

A needs analysis, as a part of designing instructional systems, can identify the knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) required for successful job performance. These KSAs are used to make decisions about designing the training, and, in turn, are the sources of performance objectives. A good needs analysis can insure a return on an investment in training.

Although I suggested using traditional ways of performing a needs analysis, such as questionnaires or focus groups, my new manager was uncertain since the rewards of doing one were unknown to her and the company. Without some sense of our customers’ needs, I had no performance objectives to guide my course development. I was frustrated by the idea of simply copying and pasting documentation into the authoring tool to meet a deadline.

I continue to nag my manager until she said to use the customer support database. Our customer support provides first-line assistance, such as resolving username and password problems, verifying set up, and answering “How To” questions.

Basically, my manager’s suggestion was to mine the customer support data.  Most data mining uses complex tools to discover patterns in data. These patterns are often used to detect fraud, assess risk, and market products. The results can be used to cut costs and increase revenue. However, I had never used data mining as part of a needs analysis.

The first database report was 1,100 pages from six months of calls. Without any data mining tools, I read through each page. I soon saw a pattern of customer questions that I aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Benjamin Bloom created a way to classify learning into three domains; Cognitive, Psychomotor, and Affective. In the Cognitive domain, he identified six levels that are known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. The six levels, from lowest to highest, are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Each level must be mastered before moving to the next.

Most of the questions in the data were at the two lowest levels, knowledge and comprehension. At the most fundamental level, our clients needed basic knowledge about the reporting process. What’s the difference between the service, create, and post dates? How do I sort the data? Is there a way to change the size of the report columns? Can I add page numbers or change the report title?

My first course answered these questions. Topics covered the parts of the reporting process, such as security setup, report types and use, dates, and customization. Examples from the database became part of the course questions. Practice A wants to run an Account Receivables report. Which date would you use? In this way, the clients could apply their knowledge in new ways.

For my next courses, I used customer questions at the comprehension level. These asked for more specifics on running reports, such as balancing end-of-the-month Account Receivables, pulling a list of daily appointments, and running a physician productivity report. Each course in the series went over how a specific report works, while the simulations covered the guidelines for running it. Again, I used examples from the database in the course questions.

For me, the customer database is still my first source of learning about our client’s needs. With each new application version, and resulting course updates, I rerun the reports. Gradually, there has been a decline in the need for knowledge about the reporting process and the “How To” questions. Perhaps, as the company has moved from a production environment to a customer service orientation, we all have learned to respond to customer needs mined from the support database. The results have been a blending of e-Learning courses with classroom training, best-practices guidelines, and a new searchable FAQ database.