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The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Needs Analysis Paralysis

We all know that doing a needs analysis is a good idea.  The problem is that we can become so focused on the analysis that we never get anything done.

I’ve worked on projects where I spent more time analyzing and filling out project forms than I did on actually creating courses.  On the other hand, I’ve also worked on projects where we did no analysis at all.  You can waste time and money using either approach.  So, where’s the balance?

Keep this goal in mind: create courses where the content is real to the learners.  That is the essence of all of the analysis.

If you have the resources, I’m sure that you can go through a very structured process to collect data and then put together some nice charts to show your client a bunch of bell curves and talk about statistical standard deviations.

What about those who don’t have time or money to do an exhaustive analysis?  Today, I’m going to give you some quick tips on how to collect the information you need to create relevant elearning courses.

Leave your cubicle.

I’m sure you work a lot of hours and you’re under pressure to get your work done.  Because of this, you get stuck at your desk and lose sight of the world around you.  This is especially true if you design elearning away from the world of your learners.

You have a computer at your desk, but your learners might share a computer in a lab.  Or, some of them don’t have sound cards or fast network connections.  You use a computer every day, but some of your learners don’t even know how to use a mouse, let alone click a “next” button.

Schedule some time to investigate the physical environment of those who’ll take your elearning course.  It’ll help put the course in the proper context.

Meet your learners.

In the same way you want to know the learner’s world, you also want to know the learner.  Who are the people that are taking your course?  Why do they need that information?  How will they use it?

Sit with your learners and get a feel for the work they do and how they’d apply the course content to their work.  The better you know your learners, the more relevant you can make the course.  If you’re pressed for time, only meet with two people.  Sometimes, just spending a couple of hours watching them work can be enough.

Assemble a pilot team.

If you don’t have the luxury of scheduling time to meet learners or visiting their work locations, a good alternative is to assemble a pilot team of people who represent your learners.  In fact, I’d assemble a pilot team either way.

These are people who can help you navigate the content and give you insight into how to make it relevant.  While you want experience and expertise on the team, make sure you don’t get stuck with the “know-it-all” expert.  Some of your best insight will come from recent learners.

Rapid prototype your courses.

I’ve worked on projects where we followed formal ADDIE steps and it would take months to roll out the courses.  Not anymore.  Why wait for it to be “perfect” if it means a delay in getting critical content to the right people?  With today’s tools, you can quickly build a course, test it out, get feedback, and then make adjustments.

While the tools let you build the course structure rapidly, a nice way to get the right context for the course is to get your users or pilot group to brainstorm scenarios where’d they use the content.  You get the benefit of learning more about their jobs and you get to rapidly prototype scenarios for use in your courses.

Create a survey.

So you work at one location and you don’t have access to your learners.  You won’t get to meet them.  In that case, create a survey.  It’s not as dynamic as spending real time with people, but you can still collect good information.  In addition, you can probably touch more people with a survey than you can with face-to-face contact.

There are a lot of good survey tools.  If you’re an Articulate user, you can leverage the surveys in Quizmaker.  If not, try one of the services like Zoomerang or Survey Monkey.  The trick with the survey is to collect the right information and to avoid collecting so much that you can’t process it.

Don’t bother doing an analysis.

Sometimes you don’t need an analysis.  There’s a good chance that your customer can give you what you need or you’re resourceful enough to trust your intuition.

I know I’ll get some flack for this advice, but from my experience that’s what’s happening anyway.  The last three organizations that I’ve worked for have been multibillion dollar companies with tens of thousands of employees.  At one, we actually were named the #1 training company.  I can tell you now, that doing any sort of analysis was in the minority.  And it wasn’t just at those companies.  It’s been that way everywhere I’ve worked.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t do an analysis.  There are just some projects that don’t require a lot.  Collect the information you need and do what you think is best.  Worst case, you learn what projects to spend time analyzing.

The goal in all of this isn’t to avoid doing a proper analysis of your course and determining how to best meet your objectives.  Instead, it’s to find the right balance between collecting the relevant information and getting your courses delivered in a timely manner.

I know that the blog readers come from diverse industries and what’s true from a corporate perspective might not be for those who design curriculum for the academic world or K12.  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and tips on quickly doing a needs analysis. Feel free to share them with us in the comments section.


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20 responses to “Here’s How to Avoid Needs Analysis Paralysis”

Hi Tom,

This is really an interesting post.

I have worked for a few e-learning companies and in all these places I never got a chance to interact with the learners directly.

As far as needs analysis is concerned getting all the information required to design the course is very difficult.

You get some basic details about the learners using which you have to design the course. Usually a team of four or five work on an e-learning project so it becomes mandatory to write the analysis and design document. Most often Needs Analysis is not done the way it has to be done.

I liked your idea of rapid prototypes and surveys.I wish more people read this post of yours.

[…] How to Avoid Needs Analysis Paralysis – Interesting Post Tom Kuhlmann has a really good post in his blog where he has put together some good points about Needs Analysis in […]

I’d agree that for some projects, it seems as though you don’t have to have a needs analysis. If you’re deploying a new sales-tracking system, then it would seem that everyone will need to learn to use it.

On the other hand, I think there’s great value in the kind of analysis that asks what the apparent problem or opportunity is and what its effect (e.g., cost) might be. Rummler and Gilbert recommended looking for causes of the problem not only in the skill/knowledge area (the only thing that training can address), but also in the work environment (job design, standards, feedback systems, tools, processes), in the motivation/incentive area, and even in personnel selection.

I think this aligns with “create content that’s real to the learners,” though I might rephrase that as “create training that helps learners accomplish valuable of training have no real say in whether or why this “training” is happening.

Still, it’s a misuse of resources to try training your way out of a dysfunctional process, a counterintuitive computer system, or counterproductive policies.

This is the best blog yet! The truth of wasteful analysis has been exposed. I thought I was in the minority! I agree with all your statements. Great job!

Great blog!Another question I have asked myself is,What resources does the trainee have right now? It makes no sense if my trainees are fumbling along trying to deal with a difficult situation while I am (anal-eyes-ing)analysising their needs. Get a product out there and fine tune it when “the fire cools”.

I enjoy your columns. You have hit on a pet peeve of mine. No needs analysis. I have developed a couple of workarounds myself that you may want to share.

Although I believe a needs analysis is absolutely critical for creating effective training one may find themselves joining an existing project or just not having access to the end user. In this type of situation I do one of two things – I spend time with a trainer who has taught the material or a subject matter expert and walk through the content together looking at it from a student perspective.

I will also look at the content as a lay person and ask all of the questions that I need answered in order to learn the content.

When you don’t do an analysis plan for plenty of revision time once users begin giving input.

February 12th, 2008

Unfortunately, it certainly is the case that there is often little or no time for a needs assessment. One way of getting around this is doing needs assessment all the time! While this may sound paradoxical, it really isn’t. Instead of waiting for a project to come along that requires some analysis, make it a point of getting to know you’re organization and the people there as much as possible: who does what, what training they’ve received in the last few years, upcoming projects or changes, etc. Use coffee breaks or lunches to talk with people and get their input as needed. The better you understand the organization generally and the easier it is to make good ‘educated guesses’ to replace a needs assessment when necessary.

February 12th, 2008

Good ideas, and a few comments about not having access to some of the stakeholders can be critical. I suggest talking to at least 2 of the key players, addressing various types of analysis at a high level. Then report back to them what your analysis has shown. This approach allows you to work the analysis quickly and get the clients’ validation when the results are reviewed.

Ask open ended questions about the following, include them in your summary, and use them to set the foundation for the course goals (linked to business need), learning objectives (addressing performance gaps), and delivery methodology (context/environment, learner, & content analysis.)

– needs analysis: what “pain” is the business feeling that prompted your request for training?
– performance analysis: what are people doing that they shouldn’t, or not doing that they should?
– context/environment analysis: how does the work environment compare to the potential learning environment? What tools and resources do they have that enable or discourage desired performance?
– learner analysis: what are the relevant characteristics of the target population that influence, positively or negatively, their ability to do the work? What experience do they have with the subject?
– content analysis: what is the “nature” of the subject matter? How is it used on the job? (interpersonal skills, business acumen, eye-hand coordination, specific technical expertise, etc.)

Asking these questions, with a follow-up probe or two for more detail, should give you enough to summarize, at a “50,000 foot level,” what the needs are. Review your findings with the client before proceeding with any design proposals.

February 12th, 2008

Much of the training I do is compliance training where the content is dictated by a governmental agency or licensing entity, so a traditional needs analysis doesn’t apply. I do talk with staff to find out how those regulations and guidelines are applied on the job so I can build realistic situations and practical applications into the mandated content.

February 12th, 2008

Great article thank you. Unfortunately the state education courses require a training needs analysis which are very regimented here (Ireland), but shortly I’m taking an active retirement group for beginners computers and realised that a needs analysis is not what they need to see at the beginning of something very new to them, this has confirmed it for me and I’ll be thinking more in terms of what will actually benefit them to make life that bit easier for them.

Tom, it makes no more sense to trust the output of a designer who did not do a NA than it does to trust a doctor who prescribes a drug or treatment without first examining the patient.

Sure, if your target audience is a group you know very well, you don’t need to go through the exacting detail that might be necessary if the target audience is not known to you. But at a minimum, even with a familiar audience, it pays to capture a few basics (prior knowledge, attitude toward the material, resources available to the learner, environment in which the knowledge/skill will be used). This doesn’t waste time on the front end–it saves time and resources from being wasted on the back end.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m bone-tired of being used as a beta tester for poorly planned or half-baked programs, including e-learning. Why should I have to suffer through an early version just so someone can create a better version for a later user?

These days, there’s a lot of pressure to develop faster than is possible using the formal ADDIE model. But if there’s enough time to re-do and revise, there was enough time to do it better to begin with.

Having said all this, there is one circumstance where I’d agree with you that a NA is not necessary–and that is on those projects where there’s no intent to evaluate the program or to assess the learners. That’s a key indicator that you’re about to develop a “feel good” training rather than one that is really expected to make an impact. If there’s no intent to measure gains, then any content and approach will do.

Otherwise, a good NA, appropriate to the situation, is really hard to beat.

Great comments and feedback. Again, the goal is not to avoid a needs analysis. As Bob and others pointed out, doing the proper analysis is critical and can avoid spending a lot of time fixing a bad course.

Terry’s advice on open ended questions is good. In fact, I’d recommend that you do that for any surveys. Just know that open ended questions mean you have to personally review the survey results so you might want to limit the number of people you survey.

I think Jean’s point is critical, and is an area where we tend to fall down. Many times the training people are reactive in how they approach courses. It’s important to be more proactive…and you can do so by being plugged into the organization’s objectives.

A book that I really like and kind of flew under the radar a few years ago is Kelley’s How to Be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed. It touches on a lot of basic things about being connected to the organization and focused on the right things. I think it’s very relevant to training because, we tend to touch all parts of the organization.

wow, what a great article…thanks tom

February 13th, 2008

We serve a stable universe of customers. We do a needs analysis if the course is new in type. For example, technicians need to be able to install, configure and troubleshoot systems and software. The needs analysis has already been done.
If there is a specific issue outside that realm that needs to be addressed, we may use Six Sigma skills to identify the root cause of the issue and discover a solution for it. If the solution is training, then we do a training needs analysis informed by what we learned earlier.
The key word is “appropriate.”

Thanks to Tom and the commenters for lots of good ideas. I especially like Tom’s idea to include some learners when you brainstorm activities for a course.

One of my favorite analysis steps is to visit the workspace of someone who recently learned what I’m about to help teach. Have they stuck Post-It notes on their monitor or built some other quick reference for themselves? How much dust is on the manual they’re supposed to be using? I get ideas about what information should go in the course and what should go in a job aid as well as what types of job aids are likely to get used.

[…] week, I posted on doing a simple needs analysis, Cathy Moore made an excellent point that looking at your learner’s Post-it™ notes and other […]

Hi Tom, I am a faithful follower of your blog.

[…] Zoomerang: create free surveys [original post] […]

August 8th, 2012

Analysis is done whether or not you call it “analysis”. Some information is paramount to the foundation when building a house of training.
I’ve just accomplished a full training needs analysis for a large company implementing an ERP system with thousands of end users around the globe. Imagine that challenge. The analysis was accomplished through SME interviews using a questionnaire that contained a balance closed and open-ended questions. A success! Touted by the client’s global T&E director as the exemplar for all needs analyses going forward, the analysis was used as the foundation for the end user training. Without it, the team would have been absolutely lost and probably would have provided “software training” (click here, now click here)rather than job performance-based training.
In this case, it was absolutely necessary to perform a full analysis…too much risk not to.
In other cases, I’ve gone in to a client and merely asked a few questions about the participants and based the training on those questions. We never discussed “analysis” but really did do it on a much smaller level. Be flexible and keep your eyes and ears open! Oh, and be ready to use your noggin!