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On unicorns and training needs analyses

Published by in Training design ·
(This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article)

For centuries people were fascinated by the thought of finding a unicorn. They had many qualities: they could make poisoned water drinkable and they could heal sickness. Unfortunately, they do not exist.

I think the same about training needs analyses. They are also wondrous things: they identify effective learning interventions, they explain how new knowledge and skills will overcome great obstacles, they provide a baseline for post-delivery evaluations, and so on. The problem is, that like unicorns, they also do not seem to exist.

Well, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic. There have been some training needs analyses identified here and there. But, really, not that many. On what evidence do I make this assertion?

First, anecdotal. People I talk to in the training world say, almost without exception, that proper training needs analyses just do not take place that often. I also asked a question in the Learning, Education and Training Professionals group on LinkedIn whether training needs analyses happened, and most replies said that they were an exception rather than the norm.

Secondly, more empirical. Whenever I start a training evaluation project, my first question is about the needs analysis on which the training is based: to date, I have never seen a training needs analysis report. Instead, people explain that it was based on a decision made by someone a while back (who has often left the company) or that the decision-making involved was not documented.

Thirdly, and more rigorous, a 2003 meta-study of training design activities by Arthur et al, noted that, based on the information they were able to review, fewer than 10% of training projects were based on a thorough training needs analysis.

So given that they have wondrous qualities, why do we just not see many proper analyses done of workplace situations, which lead, logically and with justification, to effective training interventions? There are a number of possible reasons.

A thorough training needs analysis will be a fairly complex undertaking, requiring the analyst to explore and develop an understanding of the various wicked problems which are contributing to a perceived performance problem. This will therefore take time, and training managers are often under considerable pressure to deliver quickly.

Training professionals may simply not have the breadth of skills needed to be able to understand reasons for performance problems. These problems may be due to poor organisational design, group psychology issues in the workplace, ergonomic design weaknesses or just a lack of understanding of the environmental variety that staff have to deal with when they are carrying out their jobs.
It may even be unclear as to what the actual problem is. One person may say that it is due to inadequate knowledge, another person due to weaknesses in operating procedures and so on.

There is a significant lack of integrated and comprehensive tools for training needs analysis. Ideally such an analysis should take place at three separate levels: organisational, to understand the wider picture affecting performance; operational, to look at what is happening at the functional level; and personal, to understand who the affected staff are and how training can best be integrated into their working lives (Goldstein and Ford, 2001). There are, it should be noted, various tools available for helping with these levels of analysis, but they are probably not as widely known about or used as much as they should be. For example, there is Gilbert’s Behaviour Engineering Model and Mager and Pipe’s performance flowchart for functional analysis and Holton’s Learning Transfer System Inventory for the personal level of analysis.

Finally, there is the assumption that, whatever the problem is, training will provide a solution. Paradoxically, this is seen to be a valid assumption at the inception of a project, leading to a decision to implement training without thoroughly analysing the problem, but possibly not valid after delivery, when there is a demand for an evaluation and perhaps an assessment of return on investment.
Detailed guidance on how to carry out a thorough training needs analysis is beyond the scope of a short article like this, but I have two suggestions.

Firstly, involve in the analysis process the people who will receive any training. One of the less well-implemented aspects of Malcolm Knowles’ work on andragogy (1977) is that planning of any adult learning activity should be done in participation with the learner. The learner knows what operational variety they have to deal with and what gets in the way of satisfactory performance. They will also understand how informal learning channels operate, so that formal training can be designed to integrate with this. All too often the structure and content of training is decided by senior managers who feel that they know what people must know, leading to training which is content-based and trainer-centred.

Secondly, systems thinking provides a set of tools which offer an integrated approach to training needs analysis. Techniques such as the Viable Systems Model and Soft Systems Methodology make it possible to identify and engage with all performance problem stakeholders in a way which can lead to a more holistic solution.

To carry out a training needs analysis properly, the training professional has to overcome quite a few hurdles. But if it is done properly, it can have many benefits. There is a greater confidence that any training solution will have positive benefits, because it will have been designed with the right content and using appropriate delivery modalities. There should be a better return on investment (if that can actually be measured) because the right tool is being used for the right job. And other non-training interventions should have been identified, which remove obstacles to improve performance and support the successful implementation of new knowledge and skills.

So let’s put an end to the mythical nature of training needs analyses, and try to make them a reality of organisational life.

Arthur Jr, W. et al., 2003. Effectiveness of Training In Organizations: A Meta-Analysis of Design and Evaluation Features. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(2), p.242.
Goldstein & Ford, J.K., 2001. Training in Organizations (4th Edition), Cengage Learning.
Knowles, M., 1977. Adult Learning Processes: Pedagogy and Andragogy. Religious Education, 72(2), pp.202–211.

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