Wither needs assessment?

Overheard at a recent gathering of learning professionals:

“I realized I could be more successful if I didn’t worry too much about needs assessment and just provided really good courses.  So far it’s working.  The business is moving too fast for the needs work.  The only ones complaining are the instructional design geeks”

The other party in this conversation nodded enthusiastically.  They were both training directors at leading companies.  It’s only one conversation but you may be noticing, as I am, that that needs assessment efforts in companies are waning.  Is there a trend happening here?  Maybe a past trend has just been called off due to lack of interest.  I’m looking at a 2000 research report from called HRD Trends Worldwide (by Jack Phillips) that identified Needs Assessment and Evaluation at the #2 trend.  From the book:

“Organizations are committing more resources in the form of both time and money towards needs assessment and analysis to ensure that training and development programs are necessary and are linked to business improvement”

What happened in the interim?  Certainly the era of the fat organization wide needs assessment is over.  On its way out, it tried to get fast.  In First things Fast: A Handbook of Performance Analysis, Allison Rossett proposed that we:

“…reduce the daunting size of the effort by carving the planning process into more manageable and iterative bite sizes: one swift targeted bite up front, and then subsequent mouthfuls of assessment for subsequent associated programs”

Now I’m not sure if even the “subsequent mouthfuls” are happening.  The pressure to roll out programs yesterday and the shift to rapid learning design have taken a big bite out the time that was allocated for an assessment to link to business and performance needs (or decide that another approach altogether would be more effective).  It begs the question– on what data ARE we basing the development of our learning programs?

HCM systems are individualizing needs assessment

Perhaps the success of HCM systems (LMS, and Competency Management Systems) have reduced the need for the needs assessments of the past.  The best of these systems individualize the needs assessment process by providing tools for employees to assess themselves (or their subordinates) against job based work standards to identify skill needs…which is really what the needs assessment was meant to do.

Needs assessment as annual planning

Or maybe we have just gotten much better at identifying strategic learning needs during the annual planning process.  Some companies are now very good at proactively partnering with their business line customers to identify learning and performance needs that drive learning initiatives throughout the year.  Relationship Managers and internal Learning Consultants are serving this role.  So what was once implemented as a “once in a while” big internal study has become integrated into the planning processes of the best learning functions.

Beware fast but futile

I don’t think these best practices are commonplace however.  Those organizations that withdraw into simply providing learning programs quickly on demand, without the guidance of a needs analysis, may be seen as “responsive” in the short run, but in the end will struggle to add real value to their organizations.


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