The Importance of a Proper Needs Assessment

I’m in the first cohort of the Executive Chief Learning Officer (ECLO) graduate certificate program at George Mason University. As part of my coursework there, I’m reading The Chief Learning Officer by Tamar Elkeles and Jack Phillips.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that chapter 4 of the book, “Align the Learning Enterprise with Business Needs”, is there. Of all people, leaders of learning efforts need to read this.


As an instructional designer and developer, I’ve been in so many painful, painful, situations where proper needs analyses were not conducted. There seems to be a lack of understanding in many instructional design circles of exactly what analysis is and how you get the data you use to make sound instructional decisions.

Since then, I know from more experiences than I can count right now just how crucial it is to get things figured out at the start of a project. Whoever is in charge needs to know what a client needs and have at least a general idea of what’s involved to meet those needs. Before any commitments are made to the client, and before any project plan is fully drafted and presented to the client, discussions should be held with everyone involved. The project manager needs to talk to the instructional designers and developers and anyone else who would be involved – any project plan should be made in a collaborative manner as the needs are identified and the scope of the project is determined.


Right now, the exact opposite seems to be the norm. The people making the decisions and making promises regarding the scope of a project and how long things are going to last have no idea what the client’s needs are, doesn’t fully understand what’s involved with designing and developing the solution, and has little to no idea what the final product is going to look like. Nor are these people willing to talk to others to gain input.

I’d be pleased if you were shocked by this, as this means you live in some kind of instructional systems heaven, but I daresay there will be many an instructional designer and multimedia developer out there nodding heads and cringing as they read this.

How bad is it? I was once in a class – called Needs Analysis, I kid you not – where, obviously, we were learning to conduct Needs Analyses. One of the books we used in the class was Needs Assessment, by James W. Altschuld and David Devraj Kumar. It’s a text considered so fundamental I’ve often heard of this and his needs assessment kit referred to as the “Altschuld/Kumar Book”, the way that everyone refers to The Systematic Design of Instruction as the “Dick and Carey Book”.

Anyway, page 4 of Needs Assessment reads:

The distinction between solution and need is important, and it affects the needs assessment process. Groups tend to jump prematurely to solutions before identifying and prioritizing needs or delving into what underlies them. It is part of us as doers. We don’t want to be slowed down; rather we want to focus on solutions. Needs, not solutions, have to be the concern, and groups must be kept on target, thinking first about needs; otherwise poor or unfitting solutions could be implemented at considerable cost in time, energy, and fiscal resources.

So, on the first day of class, before any kind of instruction had been given and questions of any kind had been asked, the professor (an accomplished professional in both corporate and academic sectors) declares, “We are now going to conduct a needs analysis to determine if our college needs a graduate certificate program.”

Wait. Did you catch that? This professor had already determined the solution, and was going to use the assessment as an instrument to figure out what the professor wanted for the university. Exactly the kind of thing our book’s authors were trying to warn us against doing.


That’s not how analysis works. You use analysis to figure out what needs to be done. You remember all the tools you have in your tool kit, and you know how to use the tools in your toolkit, but you keep an open mind at the start of any project and listen and get data and you take lots and lots of notes. You look over those notes and you talk with people and you figure out together what the needs are.

If you just walk in and say, “My good client, you’ve asked for e-Learning, so you’re going to get some great e-Learning!” that might make everyone at the e-Learning company happy, and the client might be genuinely happy with the results. But how is the client going to feel when they get the bill and the next day someone makes a post-it note and hangs it in the right spot and they realize they didn’t need that expensive e-Learning solution at all?

You might get paid for the project, but the likelihood of you getting another call has diminished.

Pay attention. Listen. Watch carefully. Write all that you see down. Use data collection tools in your toolkit when you need them, but get hard data (both qualitative and quantitative, if necessary).

That’s analysis, and it should reveal the following perspectives on the project:

  • The financial perspective:
    • Is an ROI expected for this project? If so, get the necessary data.
  • The customer perspective:
    • What needs does the customer have? How are those needs prioritized?
  • The internal perspective:
    • What needs does the provider/consultant have? What are the tools available to provide interventions?
  • The learning and growth perspective:
    • What are the learning and performance tools at your disposal?
    • What kind of needs does the client have?
      • Human Capital Needs (Skills, training, knowledge)
      • Information Capital Needs (Systems, databases, networks)
      • Organizational Capital Needs (Culture, leadership, alignment, teamwork)


Let’s say that you aren’t able to conduct a lot of the analysis I’m talking about here. Let’s say you’re just told you have a project and you need to get ready to deliver it. Everything for a successful intervention still depends upon data determined in analysis, but the way you do that analysis changes.

Allow me to quote a portion of page 59 from Michael Allen’s book Leaving ADDIE for SAM: An Agile Model for Developing the Best Learning Experiences. In this book, he calls what’s commonly called a kickoff meeting a “Savvy Start” – a particular kind and style of kickoff meeting that makes sure all the key stakeholders are at a project kickoff and that you all work collaboratively to figure out how to identify and meet needs iteratively. Allen calls the minimum analysis that must be done prior to your kickoff/Savvy Start of a project Backgrounding.

Make no mistake. Backgrounding is a very important task. Someone has decided this project is necessary and needed. An effective review of background information will ensure the team is fully aware of the direction of the project and the expectations for it. Expectations will change, perhaps as a result of learning about unforeseen options, but it will save a lot of time to know what the starting expectations are.


Some of the most helpful information to have initially is:

  • Who is sponsoring the project (i.e. has budget authority)?
  • Who cares most about the project’s success?
  • Why is a learning program being developed now?
  • What behaviors need to change or what skills need to be developed?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What continuing performance support will learners have?
  • How often will learners perform the tasks they are learning to perform?
  • What delivery means can be used? (For example, instructors, self-study, remote, e-learning, and so on.)
  • What’s been tried in the past? What were the results?
  • What content currently exists, and what form is it in?
  • Is the budget preset? If so, what is the maximum that can be invested?
  • Is there a critical rollout date? When? Are there any advantages to early completion?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • Who is available to help? (For example, content experts, supervisors, learners, media artists, writers, or reviewers.)


The answer to these questions have hit me hard in the past. One of them, hardest of all, that little question: “Who needs to be involved?”

There was a time we started building an intervention for a client. We conducted our analysis and early design sessions, held the days-long kickoff meeting, and even started working on the design and development of the solution.

I thought we had all the key stakeholders accounted for. I never even thought to ask if there were other stakeholders we needed to bring into this to be present at the kickoff meeting.

Turns out there were sales teams and third-party contractors and executives all over the world whose livelihood would depend on the systems and interventions we were creating, and they had all kinds of needs that we knew nothing about.

I spent the next two years of my life working myself beyond exhaustion in order to make up for the lapse of not accounting for those stakeholders. Because their needs were not identified, our initial plans were garbage.

Don’t make these kinds of mistakes. Learn this lesson now: Start right to finish right.


Backgrounding, needs assessment, needs analysis, analysis… whatever you want to call it, it is crucial to gather information before you start a project. And no matter what, if you are about to start a new project, do some analysis before you jump to a solution.

If you’re a leader of learning efforts, and a project is about to begin and solutions are being proposed, find out what analysis was done and what methods they used, so you can know how those conclusions were reached.

On the flipside, as a leader, you should provide this kind of analytical information to your people if you’re requesting they make a particular solution. It doesn’t have to be anything complex, but it should, at a minimum, answer those basic “backgrounding” questions mentioned above. No matter how you slice it, some kind of method of determining and communicating the actual needs calling for a solution should be part of your core business process.

The authors of The Chief Learning Officer know how important it is to determine what the needs of a project are before beginning it. Heed their words as I close.

A more comprehensive needs assessment process may not be embraced by some stakeholders. It takes time, adds cost, and often delays the implementation of requested programs. Learning and development staff members may not have the appropriate expertise to conduct a proper needs assessment. Some staff members may even have the opinion that needs assessments may not be necessary and are a waste of time. Also, when management requests a program, some learning staff members are reluctant to challenge the request, preferring to implement the program without a needs assessment. These are all legitimate barriers to success. The inability to overcome these barriers will make it difficult to invest more in the needs assessment process.