In most organizations solving a performance problem begins with identifying the cause of the problem. The next step should be to come up with a non-instructional solution, if one exists.

Training is expensive in terms of direct costs and opportunity cost, so it makes sense to consider it after most non-instructional solutions have been ruled out through a systematic process. This is the basis for using an instructional systems approach rather than immediately beginning with course design.

Pinning down the gaps

In this article, I will address the use of needs assessment to identify gaps in skills, knowledge, and performance of employees and customers, to determine which of those would be best addressed through training interventions, and which would be best addressed through other means, and the relative priority for correction.

In L&D or training organizations, creation of a new course, training program, or eLearning experience begins with a needs assessment. The purpose of this exercise is to determine where the gaps in employee skills and knowledge are located, and which gaps will have priority for correction. A needs assessment can be executed in several different ways: A facilitated exercise with a representative number of members of a learning audience, with a survey of the learning audience, through interviews, or through analysis of errors made by users of an application or of procedures.

In addition to preparing to develop a course, needs assessments are also done in order to identify unmet needs of users and customers as part of product or service development and improvement. The methods are similar to those just listed.

From needs assessment to design

There are many ways to proceed with instructional design, and there are many approaches. None of them should be considered a rigid set of rules or required steps.

In any needs assessment, the general procedure involves:

  • Exploring and identification of the needs (gaps) that are already known
  • Gathering and analyzing information about gaps in skills, knowledge, and performance
  • Creating a plan of action to correct the gaps
  • Evaluating the results

A needs assessment identifies not only what the performance problem is, but also who it affects, how it affects them, and what results are expected from the training. Needs assessment drives all the following steps in instructional systems design.

The main obstacle in needs assessment is that it takes time to conduct, and this may lead to pressure from management to take shortcuts or to skip it altogether. In addition, instructional designers may lack in-depth technical knowledge of the work being analyzed. For these reasons, a needs assessment plan should address key issues, taking into account the amount of emphasis to be placed on the key issues, project constraints, and stakeholder expectations. The key issues are:

  • The objectives: the results expected from the needs assessment
  • The target audience: the persons whose needs will be assessed
  • Selection of the participants in the needs assessment
  • How the information about needs will be collected
  • The use of digital information to identify needs
  • Data analysis
  • How needs will be identified from the data

A thorough guide to development of a needs assessment plan will be found in Rothwell and Kazanas (see references at the end of this article).

Newer approaches to needs assessment

As technology has proliferated in the workplace, observation of individual performance can now take place in the flow of work, in real time and with much less interference in daily activity, for larger numbers of individuals and for populations that have been hard to reach. Change means that traditional needs assessment methods and results become dated rapidly, and designers must also pay attention to developments in performance developments and expectations. This is true for developments outside of instructional design.

For example, as customer education has become more important, designers must pay attention to the ways in which methods similar to needs assessment have come to be applied to the challenges of identifying and filling unmet needs in the marketplace.

In an article in Harvard Business Review (see references), Barsoux, Wade, and Bouquet introduced a four-part framework for diversifying how and where to look for unmet needs. They suggest two main approaches for improving the identification of unmet needs: By looking at mainstream users and looking at unconventional users.

The needs of mainstream users, whose lived experiences are not surfaced by focus groups, interviews, or questionnaires, or in aggregated data (errors, complaints, and accidents) may not be correctly represented in traditional needs assessments. Fringe users, extreme users, and nonusers, as well as others who do not fit into common categories, may also be misrepresented by methods that do not capture their wider view. These groups are addressed by four strategies that improve the visibility of these groups and generating new insights.


Barsoux, Jean-Louis, Wade, Michael, and Bouquet, Cyril. "Identifying Unmet Needs in a Digital Age," Harvard Business Review, July-August 2022.

Rothwell, William J., and Kazanas, H. C. Mastering the Instructional Design Process: A Systematic Approach. Fourth Edition