By Barry Sweeny, 2003
BASIC CONCEPTS FOR THIS CONVERSATION
1. When we write a program purpose, goals, and objectves, these elements do not exst n solation from each other. If these are to be effective, they msut be related to each other as follows:
- The objectives are the smaller annual steps we take to accomplish program goals.
- Program goals are longer term steps toward which we work to eventually attain the program’s purpose.
In reality, these three elements can be thought of as functioning like a chain with links. In that sense, the objectives link effects the goals link, which effects the purpose link. This is why we refer to these elements as functioning like a “chain of causes and effects”.
2. To discuss the relationships among program purpose, goals, and objectives is much easier if we can use an example. Therefore, let’s magine that you are starting desgn of these elements with the development of a needs assessment process. That seems like a good starting place because the needs of the people we wll serve determine the kind of program we need. We just need to keep in mind that these people and the program exist within an organization, and that organization has needs that must be served too, or the people and the program we’d desgn wll not be supported. Ok, let’s begin.
I imagine that it may seem to many readers that the goal of the needs assessment process is very obvious. Perhaps we would assume the goal to be:
“To collect data about program participants so as to better plan programs for their professional development.”
I think, as a starting point, that is a pretty decent goal, but there are a number of questions such a “goal” leaves unanswered. For example, technically that statement contains TWO goals:
- to collect participant data
- to inform the planning of better professional development
However, is the ultimate goal of having needs assessment data to have a PLAN for professional development? Not really, as we don’t just need plans.
- We need those plans to be implemented as effective program activities which target participant needs. Then…
- We need those activities to produce specific desired results, such as improved participant performance.
- And then beyond that, we need the improved performance of participants to produce increased bottom line results.
The trick here is that there is an entire chain of causes and effects we are trying to create, and somewhere along that chain is a “goal”, and the rest of the items in that chain of causes and effects must therefore be something other than a goal. Fundamentally, this raises the question of definitions…”What is a goal?”
So, what do we need to do for this all to make sense and help us develop more effective mentoring programs?
1. We need LABELS which allow us to clearly describe and communicate about the various links in the cause and effect chain we are building (which is really the mentoring program and practices).
2. We also need to know WHEN and WHERE we should FOCUS along that chain of cause and effect links to create better mentoring programs.
We will address each of those issues one at a time below.
1. We need labels which allow us to clearly describe and communicate about the various links in the cause and effect chain we are building(which is really the “dominoes” which link mentoring programs to mentoring practices to mentoring results).
Each program needs a clear consensus-based list of vocabulary that everyone in the program uses consistently to mean the same things. This “rule” is especially important for the terms “Purpose”, “goals”, and “objectives”.
Click here for a suggested set of definitions for these terms. Click here to see an example of a Program Purpose and Goals.
Whether you use these specific definitions or come up with your own variations is NOT important. All that IS important is that everyone agree and use the same set of meanings in your program.
So…where do the goals of theneeds assessment process fit into all this? Here is a diagram to illustrate the answer. Notice that is is a process which flows from the far left toward the right. I will “plug” into it the various statements from above as examples. It uses MY definitions.
|< < < Direction of Design and Planning < < <|
|> > > Mentoring Program > > >||> > > Sponsoring Organization|
|Need Assessment Process Objective >||Need Assessment ProcessGoal >||MENTOR PROGRAMObjective >||MENTOR PROGRAM Goal >||Organization-Wide Improvement Initiative Goal >||Organization-Wide Purpose|
|“collect participant professional growth needs data”||“inform the planning of better professional development”||“effective program activities which target participant needs”||“improved participant performance”||“improved performance of all employees“||“increased bottom line results”|
|> > > Direction of Implementation >> >|
Not only does this structure create clarity about what we mean when we discuss processes, programs, and the organization as a whole, it also illustrates that the same term can be used at different levels within that structure to mean more or less specific or general things.
Further, this illustration shows us the critical nature of the alignment across this chain of causes and effects, somewhat like a set of dominoes, where one bumps the next, which bumps the next, etc. causing the desired effect to travel down the chain. In fact, this is exactly what happens when vocabulary about these pieces is clear, the pieces are aligned, and the chain makes sense.
In that context, the needs assessment process goals and objectives start the entire flow through the chain. This fact helps us truly comprehend the critical nature of such fundamental processes for setting up program and organizational effectiveness. Without credible data on participants’ needs, better informed, data-based planning cannot occur. Without better informed, data-based planning, effective program activities cannot occur. And of course, without effective program activities, participant improvement will not occur.
Since the whole process is a chain, it’s systemic nature means that all the parts depend on each other to create the total effectiveness of the whole. The implications of this are that needs assessment should not be planned until you first have clarity at the program level. That ensures that planning decisions about the needs assessment process flow BACKWARDS FROM the program level decisions. That’s what the arrows above and below the diagram illustrate.
This answers the question I have asked elsewhere on this web site, “Effective at what?”. My issue regarding that question is, how can you plan an “effective” needs assessment if you do not know what the needs assessment’s reason for being really is? In other words, it must be clear how a needs assessment process supports the program goals and objectives, or you cannot design an “effective” needs assessment process.
Using the diagram above can also significantly help us to answer this second question.
A. Now we can see exactly where in the chain of causes and effects the needs assessment goals and objectives fit. It is also much clearer how effective activities at aprocess level (like needs assessment) sets up the likelihood of success further down the chain “later on” at the program and even the whole organizational levels.
B. The diagram above also helps us answer the WHEN questions.
- When DESIGNING a program or a process, the sequence must flow from right to left so that the organizational priorities drive decisions about mentoring program priorities, which in turn drive the needs assessment process priorities and decisions. That’s effective PLANNING.
- When IMPLEMENTING a process or a program, the sequence must flow from the left to the right so that the chain of causes and effects function effectively. That’s powerful “high impact” IMPLEMENTATION.