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How to Conduct a Training Needs Assessment

A training needs assessment identifies individuals' current level of competency, skill or knowledge in one or more areas and compares that competency level to the required competency standard established for their positions or other positions within the organization. The difference between the current and required competencies can help determine training needs. Rather than assume that all employees need training or even the same training, management can make informed decisions about the best ways to address competency gaps among individual employees, specific job categories or groups/teams.

Assessments can be conducted at any time but are often done after hiring, during performance reviews, when performance improvement is needed, for career development plans, for succession planning, or when changes in an organization also involve making necessary changes to employees' jobs. It is beneficial to perform these assessments periodically to determine the training needs of an organization, employees' knowledge and skills, and also training program effectiveness.

Step 1: Identify the Business Need

A training assessment is the first step to any successful training program and is also a critical  aspect of succession planning. Conducting this analysis allows an organization to focus its efforts on areas of training that are necessary for employees to successfully carry out the organization's goals, make optimum use of the company's training dollars and motivate employees by contributing to their career development. The person conducting the training needs assessment must clearly understand the overall organization and department goals and priorities, so he or she can properly assess the training options and identify which training opportunities will contribute most to the overall success of employees, the business units and the organization as a whole.

Essentially, why is the organization conducting a training needs assessment? What is the end result that the employee, manager or executive team is trying to accomplish? Will training contribute to this accomplishment? Sometimes training is not the answer. There may be other organizational issues that would be best addressed through another means—for example, through job analysis, goal clarification, reorganizing or realigning a department, or employee engagement.

Step 2: Perform a Gap Analysis

Performing a gap analysis involves assessing the current state of a department's or employee's performance or skills and comparing this to the desired level. The difference between the existing state and the desired state is the gap. There are many different methods for conducting a gap analysis. The method for identifying the gap will depend on the organization and the situation. Depending on the situation, it may be helpful to use one or more gap analysis methods. Some gap analysis assessment tools are the following:

  • HR records. HR records can include accident and safety reports, job descriptions, job competencies, exit interviews, performance evaluations and other company records such as production, sales and cost records. For example, if a department has a dramatic increase in workplace accidents, then it would be important to review accident reports as part of the gap analysis prior to conducting safety training.
  • Individual interviews. Individual interviews may be conducted with employees, supervisors, senior managers and even sometimes clients/customers or outside vendors. If an organization is providing safety training, talking with the employees who not only had the accidents but also witnessed the accidents would be advisable. In addition, talking to employees who have never had accidents could be useful in creating a training program that includes a standard of safe practices. If the accidents involved equipment, it may be beneficial to talk to the vendor that manufactured or serviced the equipment. The information gathered can identify the gaps that an organization needs to address. A company and its employees can benefit from new training opportunities as a result of the training needs assessment.
  • Focus groups. Unlike individual interviews, using focus groups involves simultaneously questioning a number of individuals about training needs. Best results occur with a department or group of employees who have similar training needs. The participants brainstorm about all the training needs they can think of and write them on a flip chart. Then each person is provided perhaps five dots or sticky notes (employers should provide the number of dots or sticky notes that will work best for the organization). Each individual places his or her dots or sticky notes on the training ideas he or she believes are the most important. An individual could choose to place one dot on five different items, or all five on one training item.
  • Surveys, questionnaires and self-assessments. Surveys generally use a standardized format and can be done in writing, electronically or by phone. Depending on the situation, it may be helpful to conduct surveys with employees as well as with customers. When conducting a customer service training needs assessment, employers should ask employees what would help them provide better customer service. Employers should also obtain opinions from customers about their experiences with employees.
  • Observations. Sources for observation include a supervisor's direct observation and input, on-the-job simulations of work settings, and written work samples.

Step 3: Assess Training Options

The gap analysis generates a list of training options and needs. Now the list can be assessed based on the goals and priorities of the organization, both currently and in the future.

A scale of 1 to 3 could be used with number 1 being critical, 2 being important and 3 being not important at all. Here are factors to consider when determining if training is a viable option.

  • Solution to a problem. For example, an employee has a performance problem that has clearly been identified as a training issue. The employee is provided with additional on-the-job training in which he or she successfully acquires the needed skills. As a result, the company would have a fully competent employee who is also meeting the required performance standards.
  • Cost. Cost of training is a significant factor that needs to be weighed in terms of importance. Depending on the situation, the organization may be willing to invest a significant amount in one training but not in the others listed due to organizational priorities and finances. Here is the formula to calculate the total cost of training:

Number of Employees Trained x Cost of Training = Total Cost of Training

  • Return on investment. Return on investment (ROI) is a calculation showing the value of expenditures related to training and development. It can also be used to show how long it will take for these activities to pay for themselves and to provide a return on investment to the organization.  
  • Legal compliance. If any of the training needs from the gap analysis are required legally (i.e., by federal, state or industry laws) or to maintain employees' licenses or certifications, then these trainings would be a high priority.  
  • Time. Sometimes the amount of time involved to build the capacity within the organization will affect its operational needs as it can interfere with the employees' ability to complete other job duties. In this case, it may be more beneficial to hire the talent from outside the organization or outsource the task to fill in the skills gaps. In other cases, like succession planning, the organization can afford a long-term commitment to building the capacity from within.
  • Remaining competitive. Perhaps there exists minimal knowledge/competencies in a new product or service that is negatively affecting company revenue. The employer can provide the needed training to its employees so that the new product or service generates or exceeds the desired revenue. In this situation, the company benefits from the increase in revenue, therefore outweighing the cost of training.

After all the training needs/options have been assessed, the HR professional will have a list of training priorities for individual employees, departments or the organization as a whole.

Step 4: Report Training Needs and Recommend Training Plans

The next step is to report the findings from the training needs assessment, and make recommendations for short- and long-term training plans and budgets, starting with the most critical priorities from the training option list. If there is a timeline for any of the trainings, such as a deadline to satisfy training obligations for legal compliance purposes, then they should be budgeted and scheduled accordingly. The report should include a summary of why and how the assessment was completed, the methods used and people involved, and the training recommendations with a general timeline.

Considerations for the report and recommended training plans include:

  • What training is already being offered, and should it continue to be offered?
  • Will the training be conducted in-house or externally?
  • Does it make sense to bring in a trainer to train several employees on the same subject matter, rather than send everyone to an off-site training?
  • Does the company have the subject matter expertise within HR, the training department or another department to conduct the training?
  • Can and should the training be conducted online?
  • What is the learning style of the participants?
  • Are all participants at one location or multiple locations, or are they decentralized? 


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