“If you're not sure where you are going, you're liable to end up someplace else.”

-Robert F. Mager 


How many times have you been asked to develop a training program to correct an issue with performance?  Have you ever been asked to create a learning experience to bridge a gap between existing performance and desired performance with little information as to why the gap exists in the first place?

What may seem to be an obvious fix for a performance issue—“let’s just create some training”—may or may not actually be the best solution.  How do you determine what the focus of your training will be?  How do you know exactly what skill or behavior needs to be reinforced?  How can you be sure exactly “where you are going” with the training?  Why guess … when you can be certain by conducting a thorough needs assessment.

A needs assessment is the process of identifying, prioritizing, and documenting gaps between performance goals/standards and actual performance.  But to what end?  Ultimately, a needs assessment will assist you in determining the likely causes of those performance gaps.  When done correctly, a needs assessment will uncover specific training requirements as well as other types of needs, e.g. need for positive consequences, feedback, clear performance standards, etc.  A training needs assessment focuses on uncovering and documenting training needs and determining the best way to fill those performance gaps.

Here I will share four simple steps that, when followed, can help you to ensure the training you’re asked to create achieves the desired effect.

Step 1: Identify the Problem(s)

The end result of this first step is an accurate definition of the problem(s). You can arrive at this definition by interviewing your client and/or key stakeholders—typically someone who has identified the training need first-hand and is in a supervisor position over the target audience.  This interview should focus on gathering general information about the target audience, current state, desired state, available content and subject matter expertise, timelines, and delivery/deployment preferences.

Step 2: Confirm the Problem

After working with your client and/or key stakeholders to define the problem, you should now perform a thorough first-hand analysis to confirm the problem.  Let’s face it … sometimes what people tell you may not be an accurate assessment of the situation.  They may just be reporting their perception.  In order to properly diagram the source of the problem(s), careful analysis on your part will provide a balanced and objective perspective.

Observation, interviews, and review of documentation, can help you answer the following questions:

  • What is the difference between what is being done and what is supposed to be done?
  • What would happen if I left the problem alone?
  • Are the individuals responsible for performing the work qualified to do so?  Do they possess the required skills, knowledge, and/or competencies?  If not, do the individuals have the willingness and/or ability to learn that which is required of them?
  • Have the individuals forgotten how to do what is required?
  • How often is the skill really used?
  • How often do the individuals receive feedback on their performance?
  • Is there an easier solution?
  • Are there any obstacles preventing them from performing as required?

Step 3: Explore Solutions

With a confirmed problem, you can now explore potential solutions—solutions that are practical, feasible, and cost effective.  You may determine that a simple job aid is all that is needed to improve performance, or you may determine a full-blown training intervention is, in fact, exactly what is needed. You may determine there isn’t a discrepancy at all, but rather a roadblock that needs to be removed.  The end result of this step is a recommended solution along with an action plan.  Action plans vary in scope according to the needs of the project, but at the very least, they should include key tasks to be performed, associated dates/deadlines, and who is responsible for performing the work.

Step 4: Commit to Action

The last step is to commit to action. Get final confirmation from all the key players needed to carry out your action plan, gain approval from leadership if necessary, and document the learning objectives.

So you see … needs assessment is a critical—if not the most critical—step in developing training to solve a performance discrepancy.  Without a proper needs assessment, not only could you end up wasting time, energy, and resources on inappropriate or unnecessary corrective actions, you might not even be addressing the real problem! If you take the time to break down the perceived problem, you will make sure your training solution provides the right roadmap to the desired performance outcomes and makes the best use of your time and resources. Stay tuned for our next installment of the CDM series where we’ll discuss learning objectives and tests and quizzes!


Mager, Robert F. and Pipe, Peter (1984).  Analyzing Performance Problems or You Really Oughta Wanna (Second Edition). Lake Publishing Co.: Belmont, CA.

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