By Brett Christensen
Words are important. I hate to admit it—but they are. There are some folks who love to sit and debate from dawn until dusk about the best verb to use in a performance objective statement. I am 180 degrees opposite and want to use the verb that the majority agrees describes the requirement and move on!
In my experience, the subject matter experts are pretty good at choosing a verb that works. Saying that, words are important; and the fact that I am putting “pen to paper” is my admission that sometimes those debaters may be right!
There are two terms that continue to get used interchangeably and, as a result, incorrectly: needs assessment and needs analysis. Even worse is that both can get shortened to “NA,” which can lead to even more confusion. Want to get crazy? Add in training needs analysis (TNA), which is also often described as “the NA," and we have strong potential for misunderstandings.
While analyzing a client's training system, it was determined that the NA and NA terms were being used in interesting but not necessarily accurate ways. To help clarify how the terms are related (but different), I headed to NeedsAssessment.org to do my own research. Watkins, Meiers, and Visser's (2012) free book, A Guide to Assessing Needs: Essential Tools for Collecting Information, Making Decisions, and Achieving Development Results, is an exceptional resource that helped me to develop the draft version of Figure 1.
Figure 1: Needs Assessment vs. Needs Analysis Concept Map V1.0
With some feedback from the clients, the diagram was tweaked, spun, and massaged into what appears in Figure 1. It tells this story:
A performance problem or new opportunity starts with a needs assessment. When you do a needs assessment, you will use both needs analysis and performance analysis. The results of the needs assessment work to improve results through the implementation of non-training or training interventions, or both.
If a training intervention is required, then you will have to do a training needs analysis. The TNA uses task analysis to determine what has to be trained and what does not.
After publishing this in my blog (workplaceperformanceblog.wordpress.com/), I received a number of questions and requests to provide more details. That has taken me deeper into the topic and resulted in a second version and a more thorough explanation.
If you want to find the definition of NA and NA, be prepared for an arduous search through the Internet and many texts and journal articles where authors have put their own spin, tweak, massage, and a coat of Rust-Oleum paint on the meanings. I say the because there is no single definitive explanation. Steve Benjamin (1989) provided a great literature review on the subject and various characterizations up to that point in time.
Kaufman and Guerra-López (2013) provide a more recent and straightforward description:
“A needs assessment identifies gaps between current and desired results and places those [gaps] in priority order on the basis of the costs to ignore the needs.”
They also stress that the gap is the need. Their book provides an excellent breakdown of the difference between ends and means, wants and needs. It is on my bookshelf, and I highly recommend it!
The updated NA concept map in Figure 2 shows us that first we verify that we are dealing with a need versus a want and then proceed to the needs assessment to identify gaps. If the need is a gap, the “want” arises from the use of “need” as a verb (Kaufman and Guerra-López, 2013). A common example is the manager who jumps to the solution, demanding training be applied to a problem before understanding the cause.
It is worth mentioning here that a needs assessment can be conducted with an external or internal focus. An external needs assessment considers strategic alignment from internal results to the external value added (Kaufman & Watkins, 2000), while the more common internal needs assessment is strictly inward looking (Watkins, Leigh, Platt, & Kaufman, 1998). Also note that Figures 1 and 2 are “concept maps” and not models. While researching this article, I was reminded by one of my mentors of the George Box’s quote that “all models are wrong and some are useful” (R. Addison, personal communication, June 14, 2016). These diagrams are not intended as models!
Once the needs assessment is complete and we have finished the assessment, we are heading into analysis and our bigger, better, more complex concept map in Figure 2 includes at least five different types! Rossett (2012) describes analysis in his blog post as:
“…what we do before we do anything. It is our quest for evidence that helps decide what’s in and what’s out, the readiness and priorities of the audience, and the fertility of the culture. Analysis is systematic planning and systemic execution.”
Watkins describes analysis as “a process for breaking something down to understand its component parts and their relationships” (R. Watkins, personal communication, June 13, 2016).
Figure 2: Needs Assessment vs. Needs Analysis Concept Map V2.0
As I reviewed different models, it became clear that need, performance, gap, (root) cause, task, training, and other types of analysis terminology are not used consistently. For example, in the performance improvement / HPT model (Van Tiem, Moseley, and Dessinger, 2012), performance analysis is of a need or opportunity and includes
organizational, environmental, gap, and cause analysis.
Figure 3: The Performance Improvement / HPT Model
The organizational, process, and performer categories in Rummler and Brache’s nine boxes model (1990) in Figure 4 all include analysis of goals, design, and management. These two models show two different approaches and some different terminology in the quest to improve performance.
Figure 4: The Nine Boxes Model, Rummler and Brache (1990)
For some reason, it is only at this point in time that I have realized that the performance improvement / HPT model does not specifically include needs assessment. Epiphany! It is (I think), however, implied through the identification and measurement of the gap, which we have determined from Kaufman and Guerra-López (2013), is the need. Therefore, in the case of the performance improvement / HPT model, gap analysis appears to be synonymous with needs assessment.
Kaufman and Watkins (2000) defined needs analysis as “taking the determined gaps between adjacent Organizational Elements, and finding the causes of the inability for delivering required results.” (p. 28). Comparing this to the performance improvement / HPT model, there appears to be some similarity between needs analysis and cause analysis! Kaufman and Watkins go on to include that: “A needs analysis also identifies possible ways and means to close the gaps in results—needs—but does not select them.” p. 28). This certainly moves toward the intervention selection component of the performance improvement / HPT model.
With feedback from a number of my trusted colleagues and mentors, the diagram was tweaked, spun, and massaged yet again to tell this story:
A performance problem or new opportunity arises. Is it a need or a want? If it is a want, stop! If it is a need, initiate a needs assessment to identify, measure, and prioritize gaps. Then conduct a needs analysis, performance, and other analyses (depending on the models and methods you choose) to identify the (root) causes of the gaps.
Then do a cause analysis to inform the selection of training and non-training interventions. Training interventions will trigger an instructional design process. When the interventions are implemented, measure to confirm improved results.
Thank you to Roy Pollock, Ryan Watkins, Roger Kaufman, Roger Chevalier, and Roger Addison for your advice and guidance in the completion of this article. I would not have made it without you!
Benjamin, S. (1989). A closer look at needs analysis and needs assessment: Whatever happened to the systems approach? Performance and Instruction, 28(9), 12-16. doi: 10.1002/pfi.4170280905
Kaufman, R., and Guerra-López, I. (2013). Needs assessment for organizational success. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.
Kaufman, R., and Watkins, R. (2000). Getting serious about results and payoffs: We are what we say, do and deliver. Performance Improvement, 39(4), 29-32. doi: 10.1002/pfi.414039040
Rossett, A. (2012). Needs analysis–something old, something new. Retrieved from http://www.allisonrossett.com/2012/05/31/needs-analysis-something-old-something-new/
Rummler, G.A., and Brache, A.P. (1990). Improving performance: How to manage the white space on the organization chart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Watkins, R., Leigh, D., Platt, W., and Kaufman, R. (1998). Needs assessment: A digest, review, and comparison of needs assessment literature. Performance Improvement, 37(7), 40-53.
Van Tiem, D.M., Moseley, J.L., and Dessinger, J.C. (2012). Fundamentals of performance improvement: Optimizing results through people, processes and organizations. San Francisco, CA: Pfieffer.
Watkins, R., Meiers, M.W., and Visser, Y.L. (2012). A guide to assessing needs: Essential tools for collecting information, making decisions and achieving development results. Washington, DC: The World Bank.
About the Author
Brett Christensen is the owner and principle of Workplace Performance Consulting and an adjunct graduate professor at Boise State University. He earned his Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) designation from the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), Certified Training Development Professional (CTDP) from the Canadian Society of Training Development (CSTD), MSc in instructional and performance technology from Boise State University, and BCom in entrepreneurial management from Royal Roads University. He volunteers for ISPI, previously as a Director, chapter president earning the Chapter of Merit award in 2010 and 2011, and currently as the chair of the Selection Committee for the Kaufman Award for Societal Impact and co-chair for the 2018 International Conference. He is also a member of the Institute for Performance and Learning. He has written for PerformanceXpress, Performance Improvement journal, and eLearn magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org