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Training Needs Assessment: Tool or Trap?

By Fred Nickols

Training Needs Assessment as a Tool
“Tools,” wrote Peter Drucker, “bridge the gap between work and working.” One of the tools used by human performance professionals is the training needs assessment, or TNA. The main point in this month’s column is this: TNA is a term that has various meanings and in practice has several variations. Human performance professionals are well-served by being clear about which variation is called for when they set about conducting a TNA. Failure to do so could turn a tool into a trap.

TNA Is a Configurable Process
The first and most important thing to know about a training needs assessment is that TNA is a process that must be configured to meet the situation at hand. There is no “canned” TNA process to be followed step by step in all situations. A TNA can be triggered by different circumstances, each of which poses its own goals and requirements. TNA is an information-based, analytical activity, and various means of collecting and analyzing information might be used (e.g., surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, interviews, observations, data collection, and analyses), not all of which are appropriate in all situations. 

TNA as a System
As a system, TNA is marked by the transformation of inputs into outputs. The primary output or product of a TNA consists of recommendations and accompanying rationales. These might or might not justify pursuing training. TNA does not always lead to training. Its conclusions might be that training is not needed or that some other course of action is more appropriate (e.g., job aids, improved measurement and feedback, goal clarification, and even job or work redesign). It is also possible that TNA will lead to training plus something else. And there is always the possibility that a TNA will result in a decision to do nothing at all.

TNA Triggers
A TNA can be triggered in several ways, chief among which is a request for training. In such cases, the focus of the TNA is to clearly identify the problem to be solved and to confirm or disconfirm the relevance of training.

A TNA can also be triggered by mandated training (e.g., safety training required by law, harassment training in the aftermath of a lawsuit, and the maintenance of professional credentials and licenses). In these cases, the aim of the TNA is one of ensuring that whatever training is provided (a) satisfies the mandate and (b) contributes as much as possible to improved performance.

A TNA is also relevant in situations where the requirement for training seems obvious (e.g., new hires with little or no work experience, the installation of new systems and processes, and technological changes). 

TNA Variations
As the preceding comments make clear, TNA can take various forms and have differing emphases. The term itself suggests at least three possible kinds of analyses.

TNA can refer to the assessment of a stated or claimed need for training. This is what typically happens when a training specialist is presented with a request for training by someone who has determined that training is the solution to a problem.

TNA can refer to an assessment that identifies gaps in results (i.e., needs) that can be addressed by training. Thus, TNA might encompass or be linked to other kinds of analyses.

TNA can refer to an assessment of training that identifies gaps (i.e., needs) in training results.  Here, the problem lies with training itself and training is unlikely to be the solution.

TNA and Gap Analysis
Many of those who write about TNA assert that it is a gap analysis, a look at current conditions and required conditions, with the further aim of determining how training might (or might not) close any gaps. Gaps in results (also referred to as “needs”) can be couched in terms of organizational performance, individual performance, or the skill and knowledge required by performers. Conducting such an analysis requires specifying the required conditions, determining the current conditions, identifying any gaps, and then analyzing those gaps to confirm or disconfirm the links between organizational or individual performance and individual skill or knowledge of the kind addressable by training. 

TNA and Context
TNA is typically conducted by a training specialist or a human performance professional, perhaps someone on staff or perhaps an outside consultant. This might be in response to a request for training or as part of some larger initiative. In either case, there is a larger context, a “big picture.” First, the training department has its own survival requirements to look after, and being viewed as “responsive” is often a key factor in that. Second, all organizations are social systems, and politics is a factor in everything. Your choices are simple: Play the game or sit on the sidelines—but never use TNA purely for political advantage. If you do, you run the risk of destroying the utility and credibility of an oftentimes important tool. And, when you are contemplating TNA as part of a major initiative, do not let TNA get positioned as an obstacle, as a drag on progress. Remember: TNA is an adaptable tool, not a lock-step procedure.

TNA is a very useful tool, but it is a tool that must be adapted for the task and conditions at hand. Consequently, a TNA might be a sizable effort all its own or it might turn out to be much more modest, maybe even “quick and dirty.” TNA can involve one set of activities and resources on one occasion and a very different set of activities and resources on another.  However, the ends remain the same: recommendations and accompanying rationales regarding training—to make use of it or not, to pursue some other course of action, or to couple training with some other intervention. No matter how you approach TNA, two criteria must be satisfied: Whatever you do had better be (1) sensible and (2) defensible in the context and the culture in which you are working. In short, do not fall into the trap of blindly conducting a TNA.

About the Author


Fred Nickols, CPT, is a knowledge worker, writer, consultant, and former executive who spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy, retiring as a decorated chief petty officer. In the private sector, he worked as a consultant and then held executive positions with two former clients. Currently, Fred is the managing partner of
Distance Consulting LLC. His website is home to the award-winning Knowledge Workers’ Tool Room and more than 200 free articles, book chapters, and papers. Fred is a longtime member of ISPI and writes this monthly column for PerformanceXpress.