How to Prepare for a Need Assessment

By Barry Sweeny 2011


1. Design a needs assessment to allow comparisons

You don’t want just to assess what people perceive they need at some point in time. That would allow you to plan for their learning and to know what they are ready to learn, BUT it weill not tell you a whole lot of other things you need to know. For example, it’s critical from a planning perspective to know if their perceptions change, eith over time or as a result of a program experience you have provided.

There are a number of other questions your program will need to answer which will reauire you to make comparisons of data from different sources, different times, etc. You need to be able to make comparisons of factors like:

  • What new employees already know and can do versus what the know and can
    do after a training or other development process
  • What they think they need versus what the general research on needs suggests
    they may need.
  • What proteges perceive they need versus what their mentors and their supervisors perceive proteges need

The way to approach this issue most effectively is to think into the future about the kinds of questions your program needs to know how to answer, or WILL need to know how to answer at some future point. Then work backwards to plan when and how and from whom to collect the data that will best position your program to determine the answers from an informed basis.

Pilot programs are an excellent strategy for implementing a program plan and collecting comparison data to assess the program’s impact and effectiveness. Pilots are so valuable because they create two groups of people, those with and those without the improvements or innovations you wish to test in the pilot.

In fact, this is so critical that this author states it is better not to make any major changes in use of time, money, or other scarce resources UNLESS you have the relevant comparison data to be sure that such changes are very likely to result in the desired improvements. Without such data, you may be able to cause valuable improvements in performance and results, but you may not be able to sustain those improvements without such data because you may not be able to know WHY the improvements happened in the first place.

2. Design the needs assessment using a model of Professional Growth

It’s amazing, but the vast majority of programs with which this author works would describe their programs as professional development initiatives, but they do not utilize a research-based, proven MODEL of professional development to guide their planning, implementation, evaluation, and decision making. Instead, leaders rely on their own knowledge of staff development and common sense and experience. This is a huge flaw and often is a waste of resources, time , and effort. If your program’s goals include development of people, build on the successes of others who have leaned what causes such growth and how to facilitate it. Don’t “reinvent the wheel!”

This author’s personal recommendation for such a model of staff development is the “Stages of Concern” portion of the Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM). Design the needs assessment so there are at least 3 items targeted at each stage of the ìCBAM Stages of Concernî model. This will allow you to collect data about whatever content you wish to know, AND to place the response and the person responding at a specific stage of development for that topic.

Knowing the stage of concern for a topic allows highly effective planning for providing training or mentoring for that person because you can specifically design your response for the learner, and consider their prior knowledge as well as readiness for the next level. Further, it allows you to shift HOW you interven to facilitate the learning by clarifying the intervention strategy that best meets the needs of that learner for that tpoic at that specific time.

The author guarantees that, if you use this advice consistently in your planning for training AND teach mentors how to use it as well, that your mentoring program trainings will be powerful, gratefully received, and the resulting mentoring will be highly effective. The CBAM “Stages of Concern” is the most effective model for staff development planning this author knows. He uses it to design every thing he does that should result in human learning and improvement because it WORKS!

3. Design the needs assessment to distinguish among the needs of people with differing experience levels.

Do not treat all persons the same. For more info on this, see Treat Individuals Individually.

Your needs assessment process needs to be designed to capture the extent of prior knowledge and skills that allow you to plan different work, training, mentoring supervison, and other forms of support for professional growth for each learner. Whether your business is K-12 education in which you want those proteges to become teachers who address student’s individual needs, OR you’re mentoring employees in a customer service call center and want the proteges thinking about addressing each individual customer’s needs, you MUST address THEIR individual needs first. The effectiveness of their experience as learners is a direct and critical prerequisite to their effectiveness as employees.

Therefore, design your needs assessment to assess the differing needs of your younger and more mature, AND more or less experienced:

  • Beginning employees
  • New employees with prior experience in the same job
  • New employees moving from a different career
  • Junior or less experienced managers who are indentified for mentoring for leadership development
  • Everyone who will receive some form of mentoring and support for professional

Do so by:

1. Reframing the content of your questions considering that respondents will be people of many levels of experience. Usually this means changing your language to be less exclusive to become more general and inclusive of everyone.

2. Embedding hidden or subtle codes or markings that will allow you to know the experience level of respondents. An example of this is to use the same instrument for assessment, but underline the title for those with less than a year of experience, capitalize all letters in the title for those with more than 5 years experience in a role, and use normal caps and no underline with those who have 1-5 years experience.

The point is to be sure that you can separate and compare the data from different groups of people to determine HOW they are different, and how best to support their professional development.

4. Use the needs assessment to collect data across time …

and reveal how perceptions of needs change as employees gain professional experience and maturity. This is crucial as it will help you design trainings and other forms of support during the years of your program. I suggest that during the first year at least, that you assess the proteges’ perceptions of need four times:

  • Immediately on hiring, before any training or orientation has occurred. If the protege-to-be is an existing employee, do the first needs assessment as soon as the person is identified for mentoring support. The point is to establish baseline needs perceptions before mentoring might cause a change, so that comparison can be made later and it can be shown what effects mentoring has caused.
  • Within the first 3-4 weeks of being on the job. The idea is to show what changes in perception of needs have occurred because of the realities of being in the job for a few weeks. Reality is a great teacher, so expect needs to have changed.
  • About 3 months after beginning the job. The idea for this timing is to see what the proteges perceive their needs to be after working for a while, learning the “ropes”, and getting past the initial challenges of learning the job and orientation to the local issues and procedures.
  • About 10-12 months after starting . By this point, proteges know their way around, the expectations for their work, the local culture, their colleagues and supervisors. Perceptions of needs should be changing again. The assessment at this point will help your program know the proteges’ awareness of continuing professional growth needs, or if they feel they are done learning. This is important “readiness” data and it also clarifies awareness of need to be a continual learner and always improving one’s own performance and the performance of their team.

5. Blend Needs Assessment with Program Evaluation

The point of needs assessment is to give you the data you need to plan a training, mentoring, etc.

After you conduct the training, mentoring, etc. you want to know how well the needs of the participants have been met and what they still need to learn, so that way, you can plan the next steps, and continue to grow the people. That requires another application ot needs assessment, probably the very same instrument you used before the event.

In other words, there is a basic CYCLE of assessing needs, planning how to best address the needs, doing what was planned, and then assessing needs again.

In this way needs assessment is an on-going and in-process part of the program evaluation process. This is so because, when you asses needs AFTER a program or after mentoring, you find out if what you planned (your program) effectively met the needs and help people to learn and to grow.

The next time you do that activity, you have information about where the learners are now, AND about what works to help them. THAT IS program evaliuation AND needs assessment blended into one on-going process – a procewss that is called FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT OR formative evaluation. It is “formative” because it looks at growth and changes.

FYI, the other type of evaluation is SUMMATIVE,  WHICH LOOKS AT FINAL RESULTS.