In looking over past “Nuts and Bolts” columns I realized I haven’t done much with the basics of needs assessment, a.k.a. what to do when a manager calls and says something like, “My people aren’t motivated. We need some teambuilding training.”

A few more questions

Aside from basic questions, try a few of these less-typical questions to help you get a better picture of the problem:

  • Where are the workers who make up the target audience?
  • Tell me about their typical day.
  • Do they think they need this training? Now?
  • Help me understand why you think training is the solution for this. What will training do?
  • What organizational factors might be contributing to the problem?
  • What training already exists? What training have the learners already had?
  • What else will we need, besides training, to solve this problem?
  • What incentives will workers have to complete this training? Are they motivated to do this?
  • What incentives will managers have to ensure that members of the target audience complete the training?
  • What access will I have to workers in the target audience now for activities like assessments?
    What if we don’t train them? What will happen?
  • How will you know when the problem has gone away?


  • How does this tie in to our business goals?
  • How will the training be reinforced when it’s over?

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Try, when you can, to get the perspectives of different people involved. Here are my notes, made at the time, on stakeholder information for a project from some years back, about what seemed like a straightforward request from HR for training in the organizations’ discipline policy. Despite existing training, the HR director reported an increase in employee grievances and lawsuits and asked for an updated course.

HR and upper management are concerned about costs and bad publicity associated with lost grievances. Acknowledges that current training is not working. Feels existing training needs to be expanded to cover details of policy in more depth.

The target audience, middle management and supervisors, is largely unaware of the increase in grievances, and issues with costs do not directly affect them. They think that the policy is too intricate and that training offered has been only in the form of presenting details about policy, not application to realistic situations. Class reaction sheets consistently report that materials used in existing training are overwhelming and too detailed, that the course is too lecture-oriented and “boring,” and that it does not reflect reality of workplace situations and constraints on supervisors. Existing training is viewed as a waste of their time, and they are not amenable to more of that.

There is stress between management and the human resources office: Management feels that the human resources office is not providing enough support and meaningful information about effective use of the policy.

In-house subject matter experts (HR staff) reluctantly provide face-to-face training, but have no experience with instructional design and thus regard training only as presentation of material.

Front-line workers—ultimately the usual ones on the receiving end of the policy itself—get an overview in new hire orientation. They report that the policy in general is capriciously employed and varies from manager to manager. Anecdotes repeatedly mention the managers who let things go for a long time, then suddenly “throw the book at” a worker, managers in one work area who are far more likely to take formal disciplinary action than managers in adjoining areas, and managers who take action against one worker while ignoring the same problem with another worker.

Beware analysis paralysis

One more thing: Be careful of analysis paralysis. The needs assessment phase is important, but is notorious for expanding to fill all available time. Remember, in addition to determining actual need you still may need to do task, job, skill, learner, and technology analyses, too. Move quickly, manage conversations, and set realistic but firm deadlines for gathering information.

Finally? Negotiation skills

Every semester I’m contacted by students enrolled in instructional design programs who’ve been tasked with interviewing someone working in the field. Every now and then I hear from a textbook author needing a “Social 101” tutorial. One thing I’ve started telling them both: If there’s one thing IDers need to learn more about, it’s learning how to say , “No,” or, at least, “Let’s talk about something that might get you a better solution.”

What if, in the course of conducting a needs assessment, you find that the problem simply does not suggest a training solution? Providing the wrong solution in response to a request is a version of winning the battle but losing the war: the training department gets the business and seems responsive, but, ultimately, someone will say, “Well, we tried training but it didn’t work” or, worse, “The training department did this for us but it didn’t help at all.” It is a disservice to the client and a blow to the training profession’s credibility.

But how to say, “No” to a boss, or even your boss? Remember, managers, even those who are insisting on training, really are asking to get a problem solved. Showing how that can be done, and being part of that better solution, will ultimately enhance both training’s and your reputation. While there may be times you simply must follow orders, work to position the training function as a partner in performance improvement, not just the deliverer of one type of intervention.

Want more?

See “When Training Works” for my best quick-and-dirty needs analysis tool.

Also, it’s 30 years old, but one of my favorite needs assessment resources is Zemke and Kramlinger’s Figuring Things Out (Basic Books), complete with a section called “giving bad news.”

Some material adapted from my book From Analysis to Evaluation: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Trainers (Wiley, 2008).