“A good theory is one that holds together long enough to get you to a better theory”.1

The theoretical foundations that underlie a discipline are far from stagnant. They are in continual motion, advancing on a path that may intersect with many disciplines at different times, changing direction and pace as new ideas take root. The same is true for the discipline of needs assessment.  Needs assessment theory is both derived from and informed by numerous other fields of inquiry – including psychology, management, motivation, human resources, capacity development, and others.

Below is a general list of primary theories that contribute to the study or application of needs assessment. If there are others that you would like to have us consider adding, please let us know.

General Systems Theory
Theorist: Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Applicable Principles: Open systems exhibit Equifinality,  Interdependence, Interrelatedness, Connectivity, Synergy

Mega Planning
Theorist: Roger Kaufman
Applicable Principles: (i) Needs exist at the Mega (societal), Macro (organizational), and Micro (individual/team) levels; (ii) Needs are gaps in results

Hierarchy of Needs
Theorist: Abraham Maslow
Applicable Principles: (i) Needs exist and can be measured; (ii) All needs are not equal in motivating behavior.

Taxonomy of Social Needs
Theorist: J. Bradshaw
Applicable Principles: Needs can be categorized as Normative, Comparative, Felt, or Expressed.

Appreciative Inquiry
Theorist: David Cooperrider
Applicable Principles: (i) An organization is a miracle to be embraced rather than a problem to be solved; (ii) You should build on what is working rather than only trying to fix problems.

Capability Approach
Theorist: Amartya Sen
Applicable Principles: (i) There are differences between means and ends; (ii) There are differences between substantive freedoms (capabilities) and outcomes (achieved functionings).
Basics:  or

Expectancy Theory
Theorist: Victor Vroom
Applicable Principles: (i) There are connections among expected behaviors, rewards and organizational goals; (ii) Rewards must relate directly to performance

Performance Engineering
Theorist: Tom Gilbert
Applicable Principles: (i) Performance is a function of an interaction between a person’s Behavior and his/her Environment (P = B x E); (ii) Behavior is the product of the personal characteristics of an individual (repertory) and the environment where behaviors occur.
Basics: or

Three-legged Stool
Theorist: Richard Swanson
Applicable Principles: HRD and Performance Improvement rely on Economics , Psychology, and Systems theories, as well as Ethics.

Needs Assessment vs. Evaluation
Theorist: Ryan Watkins and Ingrid Guerra-Lopez
Applicable Principles: (i) Needs assessments are substantially different from evaluations; (ii) Needs assessment rely on a different knowledge-base and perspective from evaluations, though they share many data collection tools and procedures.

Donald Hebb as quoted in Mintzberg: