How can needs analysis reveal opportunities for adding value?
Curated resources on the many facets of needs analysis
When we get calls for help or see our organizations in some sort of distress, we want to be able to move in and save the day somehow. In our quest to be of service, we need to be sure to dig into the true needs and desired outcomes before we unleash our particular brand of support. That’s what the needs analysis is for.
Needs analysis too often gets scant attention. Despite our emphasis on being strategic partners and our enthusiasm about engaging design thinking, a variety of forces often push us to agree to the easy deliverables rather than explore more complex, impactful solutions. If we desire to change that, getting better at conducting an up-front needs analysis is a step in the right direction.
When we are approached to help with a challenge, we might get caught in the trap of simply asking order-taking questions: What solution do you want to see implemented? What change needs to be made? When is the deadline?
We can have a game-changing impact if we strive to ask deeper questions: queries that get at why the request is being made, what the requester is hoping to accomplish, what else is happening in the work and learning environment, the perspective of the people who are most impacted, and more. The deeper we understand the whole situation, the more targeted – and impactful – our recommendations can be.
Questions give us superpowers. They illuminate the nooks and crannies so we can see needs clearly and identify barriers. They prompt action – guiding people to explore more deeply and to support learning and performance more effectively. And they seal collaboration; they make us true partners with our clients, bringing them along to explore issues together.
In order to gain superpowers, we need to conduct a multi-faceted analysis that asks revealing questions in the right areas. And we need to plan a process that balances a rigorous analysis of the situation against a ticking clock and limited resources to conduct this kind of inquiry. That’s the challenge we face. And we become heroes in our organizations when we can bring superpowers to the task.
An array of superpowers
There are seven different facets of analysis that can be explored. Often, these are explored in stages, and sometimes, certain facets are unnecessary. But each facet gives unique insight that influences the kinds of solutions that might be under consideration, so asking an array of questions may help to identify new ways to add value.
|Facet of Analysis||Activities in this facet||Superpower|
|Keep your finger on the pulse of the organization, being sensitive to how the business is shifting and where business issues might be occurring so that you can be proactive in supporting the development of employees. Look for the ways that your projects are in alignment with business goals and initiatives.||Clairvoyance
Reveals what the future holds and allows you to trace the line of sight from your project through to business outcomes
|Evaluate all aspects of the performance environment, looking for the ways that it supports and inhibits desired performance so that you are tackling the right issues.||Enhanced vision
Enables you to envision desired performance as well as what can be used to support it – and what needs to be thwarted in order to enable it
|Analyze the knowledge and skill needed to do the job and prioritize how gaps can be addressed.||Ability to bestow power
Allows you to grasp what people need to know, value, or be able to do
|Get to know the perspectives of the people at the heart of your project in addition to their characteristics so that you can design human-centered solutions.||Empathy
Gives you a deep understanding of the perspective of the people you are trying to serve
|Develop an understanding of all the ways that employees might develop knowledge and skill in your project’s context and identify the most effective supports.||Web generation
Makes it possible for you to connect a variety of learning strategies to ensure the kind of deep knowledge and skill building that is required for effective performance
|Look inside and outside the organization for successful practices, useful resources, and models that can be applied to your project.||Augmented intelligence
Ensures that your project will both benefit from and expand beyond the experiences of others
|Define the requirements and limitations within which you need to work (e.g. budget, deadlines, resources).||Danger sensitivity
Raises your awareness of the guardrails around your work
These materials were compiled for my one-day workshop, Honing Your Consulting Superpowers: A focus on needs analysis. If you’d like a customized workshop or development program on needs analysis, please contact me to explore the possibilities.
These resources should help you to activate your superpowers.
// Business Analysis
Your role as a consultant has a dual focus – on the needs of the business, and on the needs of the people who you want to serve – whose behavior you want to change. Business analysis explores how to ensure your work has a long-term impact on the success of the organizations you serve.
These resources talk about what it means to take a more strategic, business-focused look at being a consultant.
- The Business Analysis Process. Describes a broadly scoped process for analyzing business needs. By Laura Brandenburg.
- Five Learning and Development Metrics that Actually Matter to the C-Suite. By Gerard Sequeira on the Human Capital Institute blog.
- Demonstrating Value: 12 Valuable Metrics For Learning And Development Teams. By Laura Overton on the eLearning Industry online magazine.
// Performance Environment Analysis
Superpower: Enhanced vision
A performance analysis identifies what is in place to support and inhibit desired actions and behaviors. It also explores the degree to which all aspects of the work environment are aligned to support desired performance. A number of thinkers have provided frameworks that help us to understand the performance environment. Training and development only impacts employee knowledge and skill; if other elements of the environment are not supportive, or are interfering with performance, then a training intervention alone will not be sufficient to successfully impact performance.
- Transition From Order-Taker to Impact Maker. Written by consultant and Performance Consulting author Dana Robinson, this article lays out the argument for exploring the performance angle and a vision for becoming a strategic partner with business leaders. By Dana Robinson on ATD (members only).
- Next Generation L&D: From ‘Learning’ To ‘Performance. This article describes how L&D organizations are expanding their focus from learning solutions to performance solutions. By David James in Modern Workplace Learning Magazine.
- Performance Consulting What It Is and How to Get Started. This hour-long webcast (48 minutes plus Q&A) outlines the role of performance consultant and gives advice on how to move into this work. With Dana Robinson and Chris Adams on ATD.
// Learning Needs Analysis
Superpower: Ability to bestow power
Learning needs analysis digs down into the knowledge and skills that people need to build in order to achieve desired performance and goals. A task analysis goes into depth, and may be conducted by a training designer. These articles will give you some background.
- Key Questions for Learning Needs Analysis. A short list of important questions to help you discern learning needs. By Catherine Lombardozzi.
- Task Analysis in Instructional Design. This article gives a succinct overview of what is captured in a task analysis. By Don Clark.
- Six Tips To Conduct A Successful Task Analysis For Corporate eLearning. This piece describes a broad overview of the steps involved. By Christopher Pappas on eLearning Industry.
- How to improve your UX designs with Task Analysis. One more perspective from which you can extrapolate some important tips. By Andreas Komninos from the Interaction Design Foundation.
// Group Analysis
The group analysis consists of gathering basic information about the group you are trying to serve as a whole (e.g. job roles, numbers, locations, etc.). More importantly, though, it’s important to gain a deep understanding of their perspective. That is accomplished by conducting activities designed to increase your empathy for the group, and it is often documented by crafting a set of personas to represent the group in your decision-making process.
- Empathy – How to Improve Your Designs by Developing Empathy for Your Target Group. This article talks about the importance of empathy in product design, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how it can apply in our context as well. By Priscilla Esser from the Interaction Design Foundation.
- Empathizing Tool Index. This document provides links to resources that offer clear guidance on employing a wide variety of empathy-building techniques as described in design thinking circles. Compiled by Catherine Lombardozzi.
- The Importance Of Context In Learning Design. This article makes the case that understanding the learners’ context is often as important as understanding their perspective. By Connie Malamed, The eLearning Coach.
- Personas Place Developer Focus on Learners’ Needs. In this article, industry thought leaders share their perspective on the importance of the tool that is the heart of this week’s challenge, learner personas. By Pamela Hogle on Learning Solutions.
- Persona Template and Empathy Map Template. These versions (in PowerPoint) are by Catherine Lombardozzi; you’ll find many more options on the web.
// Learning Environment Analysis
Superpower: Web Generation
The learning environment consists of all the available resources from which people can draw in order to learn, and the context in which they do their learning. From this perspective, then, you’re identifying what might be leveraged or created to support desired capability development AND analyzing the factors in the work environment that support or inhibit learning. In analyzing the learning environment, you’re looking for the tools that employees already use to support their learning as well as what might be needed to enrich the environment to support learning in general and the development of a specific skill set in particular. A learning environment analysis also helps you to determine the kinds of resources that might be useful for a comprehensive learning path.
- Cultivating Valuable Learning Environments. This article describes how to curate resources for ongoing learning. By Catherine Lombardozzi. Additional learning environment materials are also curated here.
- Learning Environment Components Chart. This chart lists the elements that can be leveraged or activated to support ongoing learning. Chart compiled by Catherine Lombardozzi.
- Continuous Learning Model. This article provides another vision around the range of activities that can support learning and how to conceptualize a learning path. By Bersin & Associates at Deloitte.
- Learning Culture Audit by Marcia Conner and Signs of a Learning Culture by Stephen Gill on ATD. These lists of learning culture characteristics may help you analyze how easy or hard it may be to learn in a particular environment.
// Field Analysis
Superpower: Augmented Intelligence
The field analysis encompasses your research into whether there are models, case studies, or research results that can inform how you address the issues at hand and the content or skill you choose to include in your proposal.
- Evidence-Based Practice for Effective Decision-Making. This how-to resource is compiled by the CIPD – a premier organization for HR and people development professionals worldwide. Requires free registration or membership to gain access. From CIPD.
- The Essential Guide to Evidence Based Practice. This site describes some of the ways practitioners can get access to research that informs their decision making. From The Oxford Review.
- Conducting Best and Current Practices Research: A Starter Kit. A solid description of steps to take to find good practices outside of your organization. The links are out-dated, but the process description is relevant. (Download link on right of web page under titles.) By Ophelia Eglene, University of Albany.
// Requirements Analysis
Superpower: Danger sensitivity
It can also be critically important to explore the overall requirements of the project so you are aware of the limits within which you need to work.
Quick List of Limits to Explore:
- Decision-Makers. Identification of who has authority over the project and their particular wants and needs
- Budget. Funds being allocated to the effort
- Deadlines. Dates when the solutions need to be implemented (when they can start / when they must be complete)
- Dedicated Time. Amount of time you and other participants in the project have to dedicate to the work
- Resources. Availability of people with specific specialties, and access to tools, workspace, and other needed resources
- Skill Set. Relevant skill and experience of those who need to be able to execute the project
- Expressed Preferences. Endorsements and cautions from key decision-makers and those you want to serve (not necessarily definitive or disqualifying, but important to know nonetheless)
- Stakeholder Concerns. Analysis of other stakeholders who may be interested in the execution or results of the project, and their degree of involvement in the project
- Measures of Success. How key stakeholders will define success (this should be clear from other areas of analysis, but worth considering again)
Crafting a Needs Assessment Plan
As you develop your sense of areas to explore, your next step will be to write a comprehensive plan and develop a specific list of questions. The resources below provide advice in these areas.
// General Needs Analysis Resources
To create a needs assessment plan, start by determining the data you require for the decisions you need to make. Consider all the levels of analysis and select which areas should be explored. Then determine who has the information you need, and the most effective and efficient ways to collect data from them. Write a comprehensive plan and share with a manager or colleague to get some feedback before you launch.
- Needs Assessment: Frequently Asked Questions. This is the opening chapter of A Guide to Assessing Needs, and it provides a solid overview of needs analysis and its benefits and challenges. Complete book free online. By Ryan Watkins, Maurya West Meiers, and Yusra Laila Visser for The World Bank.
- Needs Assessment: Is Backward Analysis the New Front-End Analysis? This blog post highlights how the various angles of assessment are intertwined with one another. It talks about the HPT model of performance analysis. By Barbara Camm, of Dache & Thomson, an L&D consulting firm.
// Devising Questions
These resources will help you in preparing the questions you want to ask.
- Performance Improvement: Asking the Right Questions. Contains a useful list of Socratic question examples, which sounds pedantic but provides relatable examples and phrasing. By Ingrid Guerra-López and Karen Hickson on ATD’s web site.
- Questioning Techniques: Asking Questions Effectively. A quick primer on types of questions – consider how to use each and notice how the example questions are worded. By Mind Tools.
- Surveys 101: A Simple Guide to Asking Effective Questions. A terrific, succinct run-down of question types and tips for surveys. By Stephanie Beadell on Zapier.
- The Guide to Assessing Needs. Contains advice on interviews, focus groups, guided expert reviews, and dual response surveys, and is a good overall resource.
For additional background, read these terrific articles by Chris How, a Brighton-based user experience consultant writing on Medium.
// Bonus quick tips on data gathering techniques
Many resources provide advice on how to effectively plan for and implement data gathering activities. The guidelines below highlight some of the most important ones. Your experiences and particular contexts may suggest differently; use your judgment to plan for your particular situation.
- Organize questions in a logical flow, placing the more difficult-to-answer questions in the middle of the set.
- Phrase most questions in an open format, inviting expansive answers.
- Ask follow-up questions to ensure interviewees answer the question and provide the detail you need.
- Limit yourself to about 15-20 questions.
- Make the interview feel more like a conversation by using active listening and commenting briefly between questions rather than asking question after question like an interrogation.
- General Guidelines for Conducting Research Interviews. From the Free Management Library.
- Nine Tips on Conducting Great Interviews. By Shel Israel on Forbes.
- Invite 5-8 people (or up to 12 if people if some are likely to have to call out at the last minute).
- Make sure invitees have similar enough perspectives that they can build from each other’s responses (rather than answer questions in a serial fashion).
- Set clear goals, and limit yourself to 4-6 questions.
- Ask questions that are open, and be prepared to follow up for details.
- Have a note-taker separate from the facilitator, and capture the participants’ own words as much as possible.
- Basics of Conducting Focus Groups. From the Free Management Library.
- The Use of Focus Groups for Learning Needs Analysis. By The Stairway Consultancy.
- Give people an idea of how many questions there are or how long it will take to complete the survey before they begin.
- Ensure that every question can be answered by every respondent (include responses such as “Not sure” “Not applicable” and “Other” where appropriate).
- Allow for comments where respondents may want the opportunity to elaborate or explain their answers.
- Group together questions on similar areas and questions with similar response types so respondents do not have to frequently switch their perspectives in order to respond.
- Be careful to choose the right question type for your purpose (e.g. multiple choice (one answer), checkboxes (check all that apply), matrix (multiple questions with the same possible responses)).
- Make a clear plan for the kinds of behaviors and attributes you want to observe, and craft a note-taking form to provide reminders and space for documenting key elements.
- Ensure there is clear communication about what or who is being observed and why.
- Remain unobtrusive. Consider in advance what kind of interaction you will engage (e.g. Will it be okay for you to ask questions? How will you respond to questions or comments addressed to you?)
- Take time to expand your notes immediately after the observation is over.
- Consider that people will behave differently when they are being observed than they might in daily work.
- List the information or insights you want to learn by reviewing the documents, and keep this in mind as you analyze each one.
- If you are reviewing several of the same type of document, prepare a checklist or note-taking guide to ensure you gather consistent information from each.
- In your notes, keep track of where you find specific pieces of information or quotations so you can locate and reference them later.
- Make note of the dates on the documents and ensure you are reviewing the most recent version (unless you are looking for historical data).
- Recognize the confidentiality of certain documents, and be sure to maintain non-disclosure as appropriate.
Never miss a new set of curated resources. Subscribe to my newsletter in the footer below.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Last updated: March 23, 2019 by Catherine Lombardozzi
This page is part of a collection of resources curated by Learning 4 Learning Professionals
For more, go to L4LP.com/curated-resources