The words we select to describe and discuss needs are essential to our understanding of what we are assessing and implications of those assessments in our decisions. Yet, words can often be hard to define in precise ways since they can vary by application in different disciplines and they can change as we learn more about needs.  We therefore maintain a glossary of terms in a Wiki tool so that it can updated to reflect disciplinary differences in usages and emerging definitions that may shape use of the words.  Click here to access the Glossary, and contact us if you would like to contribute to its further development in the Wiki.

Why Needs Assessments?

Needs assessments provide a systematic process to guide decisions-making in organizations. No matter how big or small your choices, the decisions people make at work each day have an impact on your performance, the performance of others around us, as well as the performance of the organization itself. As a consequence, whenever possible you should use systematic processes to ensure that you have all of the valuable information necessary to make an informed decision. Systematic processes not only provide initial step-by-step guides, they also offers a foundational set of procedures that you can reflect on, customize, and continually improve in order to enrich your decisions later on as well.

Needs assessments provide justification for decisions before they are made. After all, once a decision is made it is typically too late to start justifying your choices. Rather, needs assessments proactively identify (a) the performance data that define your needs, (b) the prioritization of your needs, (c) the performance criteria for assessing potential interventions, as well as (d) the information necessary to justify your selection of one or more activities to improve performance. Thus, a needs assessment justifies your decisions before they are made by turning facts into data, data into information, and information into valuable tools for linking your decisions to performance.

Needs assessments are scalable for any size project, time-frame, or budget. There is no reason to spend $1,000 to resolve a $10 performance problem. Likewise, you would not want to take year and thousands of dollars to implement a rigid needs assessment process that is only going to moderately improve the performance of a small family-owned business. What you want is a decision making process that can be appropriately scaled for the scope of your improve efforts. When fitting, needs assessments can be done in a couple of hours, with few resources, and still provide quality information to guide your performance decisions. Equally, more detailed needs assessments can be used by organizations when they are looking to address multi-million dollar performance problems with cost-efficient performance interventions.

Needs assessments offer a replicable model that can be applied by novices or experts. To build on the lessons learned from previous decisions, needs assessments offer a replicable process that can be used over and over again; as well as be systematically improved upon over time. While a needs assessment can be customized to suit the decisions you are making, by providing a fundamental framework for collecting information, making decisions, and improving performance needs assessments provide a flexible structure that you can apply today, tomorrow, and in the future to guide your decisions.

Needs assessments provide a systemic perspective for decision-makers. Organizations are built around interdependent systems, systems of subsystems, and even social systems that you will never find in an organizational directory. And as a consequence, your decisions constantly have rippling effects that move from one system to the next. For example, the introduction of performance appraisals within a sales team hopefully improves the results of sales associates. In addition, increased sales will also have an impact on the performance of workers in manufacturing, billing, and accounts payable. If these systems with the organization are not prepared for changes in sales performance, for instance if they do not have the capacity to produce enough products to keep pace with improved sales, then improvements to one system – in this case sales – can impact on the performance of other systems. Consequently, decisions within organizations must have systemic information to guide your choices; aligning improvement efforts within each subsystem of the organization with one another, as well as with the organization, its clients, the client’s clients, and others in the community.

Needs assessments allow for interdisciplinary solutions for complex problems. Unsatisfactory performance in organizations is rarely the result of single problems, issues, or causes. Consequently performance is rarely improved by single solutions, interventions, or activities. The time required for new employees to perform at desired levels, for instance, is hardly ever simply and solely due to a lack of technical skills. More often, new employee performance is obstructed by unclear performance expectations, lack of valuable feedback on current performance, absent resources, misplaced incentives, little motivation, or unique combinations of various other performance obstacles. In response to complexities of performance in today’s global development challenges you must include interdisciplinary solutions into your improvement efforts. From career counseling and executive coaching to rewards programs and succession planning, interdisciplinary interventions that address the entire performance system are necessary to achieve sustainable results.