How to Collect Data for a Needs Assessment

By Elaine Biech

Like your sightseeing tour, a trainer wants to get the most bang for the buck. That means conducting a needs assessment and analyzing the data. What’s the root cause of the problem? Is training even the issue? The figure highlights the first stage of The Training Cycle.

Stage I of The Training Cycle: Assess and Analyze Needs.
Stage I of The Training Cycle: Assess and Analyze Needs.

There are many ways to conduct a needs assessment. Following are a few of the most commonly used approaches:

  • Interviews: The trainer uses this technique to identify people who can provide information about the need and then interviews them. The advantage to this type of interview is that you can obtain in-depth information about the situation and you can get others’ ideas about how to handle the situation.

    If you do end up providing a training program, you also have some early commitment because people have had input in shaping the program. The disadvantage to this type of needs assessment is that it is labor intensive. By the way, although it isn’t ideal, interviews may be conducted by telephone as well.

  • Focus groups: Another approach is a focus group. Somewhat like the interview, the trainer identifies key people who can provide information about the need. However, instead of interviewing them individually, the trainer interviews them in groups. There are two advantages to this method. First, the trainer can interview more people in a shorter period of time.

    Second, the members of the focus group can piggyback off each other’s ideas. The disadvantage to this approach is that a quiet person may not give his/her point of view. The result may be that the trainer has information provided only by the outspoken members of the group.

  • Questionnaires: A tool is used when a trainer wants to collect specific information from a large group or a widely dispersed group. The advantages are that you can include many people, and the results are clear-cut.

    The disadvantage is that questionnaires may not allow for free expression or unanticipated information; therefore, the trainer may miss some critical data points. Assessment tools such as SurveyMonkey, QuestionPro, Zoomerang, or others can be an easy solution.

    Your data is only as good as the questions you create. You probably want to test a new questionnaire on a small group of people to determine what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, questions can be misinterpreted. Sometimes, questions ask for things they never intended. Sometimes, typos prevent collection of good data also.

  • Observation: This is a good needs assessment technique in two circumstances. First, it is useful when a trainer is assessing the need for skill-based training. Second, it is a good technique to use when a trainer is asked to conduct a program that changes behavior (for example, customer service, giving constructive feedback, flipping flapjacks, welding an I-beam).

    The most important advantage to this technique is that it provides the trainer with a realistic view of the situation. The disadvantages are that it takes a long time and is labor intensive. In addition, observation can only indicate behavior, not the reasons behind the behavior or action.

  • Performance data reviews: This technique is used when performance criteria are clear and there is sufficient data available to measure the performance criteria. The advantage to this approach is that the training topics and goals are easy to determine.

    The trainer need only look at the gap between the criteria and the actual performance. The disadvantage to this approach is that the data may be confounded by other variables, such as equipment downtime or external expectations.

  • Informal discussions: In this approach, the trainer gathers data about training needs through informal conversations with other employees, supervisors, and managers in the organization. The advantage of this approach is that the trainer can get candid information that may help to select a more formal needs assessment approach. The disadvantage is that it may be biased due to its unsystematic approach. These discussions are, however, a great way to gather ideas for practice sessions or role plays.

  • Knowledge tests: Tests are beneficial in helping trainers identify what to include in a knowledge-based program. The advantage to a test is that it measures knowledge versus attitude. A potential disadvantage is that the items on the test may not actually reflect the knowledge used on thejob.

Note that you may use a combination of the tools listed. Every assessment is different. You don’t use the same assessment you use to plan your foreign tour to determine how to remodel your bathroom. You may not use the same needs assessment and analysis tools for two training programs, either.