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Training Needs or Training Wants Analysis?

by AIMM MAITD

This article first appeared in Training and Development in Australia, Vol 36 Issue 2, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

So, you have been asked to conduct a Training Needs Analysis (TNA) in your organisation. What I see all too often is people undertaking a TWA instead; a Training Wants Analysis. The training practitioner usually starts by walking around asking people in their organisation what training they would like. If there are a lot of people to ask, the savvy practitioner sends out a paper-based or on-line survey. I call this the "smorgasbord" approach, because employees and their managers end up being offered a selection of courses –much like visiting McDonalds and choosing from their menu. Some practitioners even include tick boxes in their training wants survey to make selection so easy. What you end up with in all of these cases is little more than a wish list.

What's wrong with asking employees and managers what training they want? Nothing, if it is informed by the right mind set. With this tick the box approach, the training department may look as if it is satisfying real needs. But when push comes to shove and managers are badgering their staffs to meet deadlines and serve customers, that course that looked interesting on paper is just no longer a priority. Even with a lovingly prepared training calendar and a slickly presented course handbook, the end result is, more often than not, practitioners complaining bitterly that hardly anyone turned up.

Training Wants Leave You Wanting

I see this type of Training Wants Analysis approach leading to these drawbacks:

  1. Scarce training dollars are wasted on low relevance, low impact programs.
  2. Training practitioners lose credibility as managers perceive poor attendance rates at organised courses.
  3. Managers increasingly source their training programs from elsewhere.
  4. Employees become further dispirited as training resources are not helping them do their job better or to get ahead in the organisation.
  5. The training department is the first to be downsized when times get tough.

What surprises me most is that after experiencing the frustration of low turnouts at scheduled courses and managers grumbling that training is a waste of their employees' time, a number of training practitioners go on to use exactly the same approach the next year. So, why then do some practitioners repeatedly go after wants instead of real needs? Well, how many of the following reasons ring true in your organisation?

  1. It is much easier to simply run a survey asking people what training they would like.
  2. Training is seen primarily as an employee benefit or reward instead of as a strategic tool.
  3. Practitioner skills are lacking in how to conduct a proper TNA.
  4. Managers simply want to tick the training box and get on with the "real" work.
  5. The allocated training budget needs spending.

You have decided that you want to progress beyond your organisation's traditional wish list. What exactly is involved in uncovering training needs as opposed to wants? Well, it partly depends on the level at which your organisation has asked you to conduct the TNA. Your TNA may be at the level of the entire organisation, a sub-unit of the organisation (project, department, workgroup, team) or at the level of individual employees. A TNA at each of these levels will look very different. Primarily, your stakeholders (the people who have an interest in the outcome of your analysis) will be different and the information you use for your analysis will come from different sources.

Get the Purpose Clear

Let's start at the most comprehensive level, that of the whole organisation, and work down from there. Your organisation needs training, but for what purpose? Get that clear and you are off to a great start. Generally, employees need to be trained to move the organisation forward. To move the organisation forward, the owners and the management team should have some idea, some strategy, for solving the organisation's current problems and making the most of opportunities presented to it. If your organisation does have a set of objectives and a strategy for achieving those objectives, well and good. If not, then lock them in a meeting room and prompt them until they tell you where they want the organisation to go and how they are going to get there.

For an organisation to achieve the objectives that you uncovered, it will need three capabilities.

  • It will need capable systems, such as employee and customer tracking, financial accounting, and so on.
  • It will also need capable processes, such as customer support, contract management, product delivery, and so on.
  • Thirdly, it will need capable people with the knowledge, attitude and skills to do the necessary process tasks using your organisation's systems.

Your organisation will most likely experience some deficiencies in all three capabilities. These are the gaps between the capabilities it needs to achieve its objectives and what it currently has. Your job in conducting a TNA is to find out the gaps in its people capability. These are the shortfalls in the knowledge, attitude and skills of your employees. The trick here is to avoid proposing a training solution where the gap is not a lack of knowledge, attitude and skills.

Be wary of managers that see every problem, including employee lethargy, resource deficiencies and unclear processes and responsibilities, as being solvable with training. Sure, training may be a necessary part of the solution, but conducting the training without dealing with the root cause will not take you or your organisation very far. Not every problem can be solved by training, and in your TNA you will need to analyse carefully which shortfalls and opportunities can be helped by training and which cannot.

Focus on Shortfalls in Behaviour

The second key point to keep uppermost in mind when conducting your Training Needs Analysis is that if your training solutions are to have maximum impact, you will need to focus on shortfalls in employee behaviours. As you conduct your analysis, continually ask managers what they need their employees to be able to do in order to achieve the desired objectives. Novice practitioners easily get caught in the trap of asking what people need to know. But knowing in theory what it takes to calm an angry customer is not the same as actually being able to do so in the heat of the moment. Focus on skill deficiencies, not just knowledge gaps. Sure, underpinning knowledge is essential, as is having the appropriate attitude. But it's what employees can do with the right knowledge and attitudes that count.

At the level of the entire organization, what other sources of information can you get hold of that will shed light on its objectives and performance shortfalls? Some things you can ask for are strategic planning documents, key performance indicators, share market data, and so on. Your focus here is on finding out what the organisation is trying to achieve, how it is progressing and what skill gaps are holding it back.

If you have been asked to conduct a TNA at the next level down in the hierarchy, your focus should be on finding out the objectives of that organisational unit, be it a project team, department or workgroup. Ideally, the objectives of the organisational unit will be cascaded down from above. If not, identifying and implementing training to achieve the sub-unit's objectives will have but limited impact on the organisation. Data sources you could be looking at for this level are project plans, operational plans, departmental key performance indicators, product and service quality data, audit reports, and so on.

At its most granular, you will be asked to conduct a Training Needs Analysis on specific individuals. These may be all employees belonging to a particular role or position, such as frontline supervisor, marketing analyst, accounts officer, and so on. Or it may be a specific individual or individuals identified as having changed responsibilities or experiencing performance shortfalls.

Sources of information that you could look for at this level are role descriptions, competency maps, employee performance appraisals, customer complaints, critical incidents, and so on. Once again, you should be looking for evidence of what is expected of the employee and their current level of performance. Employee expectations should be aligned with the organisational sub-unit's goals mentioned above. Otherwise, any new skills inculcated will be mostly wasted. Where expectations and skill requirements are not clear, your TNA will have served a very valuable purpose by prompting the relevant people to draw up the required documents.

Question with the Right Intent

When conducting a Training Needs Analysis at either of these three levels – organisation, sub-unit and individual – it is essential for you to interview employees and their managers. Here, there is no difference compared with conducting a Training Wants Analysis. However, when conducting a true TNA, the intent behind the questions is wholly different. Questions are asked not for the purpose of simply constructing a wish list, but to uncover what managers and their staffs want to achieve and how people capability gaps are holding them back. Start your TNA exercise with this mindset and you will achieve long-lasting benefits for your organisation.

In this article, I have not dealt with the nuts and bolts of performing a TNA, such as profiling participants and conducting task analyses. I will be satisfied if I have driven home the key point that your training programs will be ineffective if based on wants alone. To be truly useful to your organisation, you need to become a detective, uncovering the real needs amongst the litany of false leads. I have listed below some useful resources to help take your Training Needs Analyses to the next level.

Other Resources

© Copyright Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at office@businessperform.com

Leslie Recommends
Training Projects Template Pack

For a practical Training Needs Analysis Guide and customizable set of templates, check out Leslie's Training Projects Template Pack. Included in the pack are a wealth of other guides and templates for all phases of your training program design and delivery project. Visit the Training Projects Template Pack information portal to download the free User Guide and start using these practical and customizable templates today.

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