Frequently Asked Questions

What is a need?
What is meant by human and organizational performance?
Are we not already doing this?
When should you conduct a needs assessment?
How does a needs assessment relate to a needs analysis?
How does a needs assessment relate to other tools you are already using, like front-end analysis, root-cause analysis, or performance analysis?
Isn’t an evaluation the same thing?
How about a training needs assessment?
Can’t you just send out a survey asking what people want?
What types of performance interventions should be considered in a needs assessment?


Note: Answers to these Frequently Asked Questions are based on draft materials from A Guide to Assessing Needs.

Based on the definition of needs assessment provided on the Introduction page, what is a need?

In relation to improving human and organizational performance, needs are simply the differences between your current achievements and your desired accomplishments.  Thus, most commonly needs represent the discrepancies — often deficits — between your ambitions and the results of your current performance; though needs can in the same way represent an overabundance of success when your current achievement surpass your desired accomplishments.

As you can see, nonetheless, this definition of needs does not include any mention or discussion of computers, budgets, training courses, irrigation systems, HIV-AIDS programs, urban development, executive coaching, leadership, incentives, micro-loans, holiday bonuses, re-engineering, or any of the thousands of techniques that have been developed to achieve results.  Rather, your needs are the bare-bones gaps between current and desired performance; for example, you objective to have zero defects in your products but you are currently have a 1.3% defect-rate.  As a consequence, you don’t “need” to hire more staff, nor do you “need” to provide more training.  These may end up being desirable elements of your performance improvement efforts but they are not needs. Your need is merely the 1.3% difference between what should be and what is.

In another context, for instance, your organization may produce computer components that must meet client specifications.  Your production line is expected to produce 1,250 components each day that meet client requirements, yet on a normal day your production line currently produces 1,150 acceptable components; leaving you with a need of 100 additional components each day.  Reducing the size of this discrepancy, or need, is then a measurable performance objective that may or may not be a priority for your organization.  If it is a priority, you would then want to look at all of the possible activities that could be done in order to improve performance and reach your goal.  From quality management initiatives or hiring additional staff to re-training or redesigning the component assembly process, there are many (many) optional solutions that you would want to consider, but deciding which to implement should be based on the results of your needs assessment first.

For example, in another context, the gap between the current numbers of HIV-AIDS patients in a given region of a country versus the desired result of no HIV-AIDS patients in that area would define a need of an international aid agency.  Likewise, the same agency may have needs associated with amount of revenue generated by an ad campaign, the accomplishment of desired results from training programs, as well as needs associated with productivity of organizational staff members.  All of these needs — when defined, measured, and prioritized through a needs assessment – can then provide organizational decision makers with a framework for making justifiable decisions about which needs to address and in which order. In addition, the needs assessment will provide criteria for evaluating and deciding among the many (many) alternative solutions that can be used to address any organizational need.

Based on this definition of needs, and these examples, you can define the critical terms to understanding what a needs assessment is, as well as the value it can offer you and your organization.

Needs: Discrepancies between the results currently be achieved and the desired results to be accomplished.
Assessment: A process for assigning value or worth to someone or something in order to make decisions.
Needs Assessments: A process to define, measure, and prioritize needs based on the cost to meet the need (or close the gap) versus the cost of not meeting the need (or not closing the gap).

What is meant by human and organizational performance?

The results of organizations vary widely — from producing irrigation equipment to making loans to low-income countries – and thus it next to impossible to adequately describe the desirable product, outputs, outcomes, or impacts of all organizations with a universal term or phrase.  Yet, for ease of discussing needs assessments in a manner that can communicate with readers from varied organizations, in this book you have settled on the phrase “human and organizational performance” to represent the results that are focus of a needs assessment. 

For some readers, the performance (or results) of your needs assessment will be the results achieved by individual employees in your organization, also known as human performance.  This may deal with the production of some materials or it may concentrate on distribution of funds to local non-profit groups. Individual performance may relate to the creation of reports or to the teaching of students. In all cases, human performance focuses on the accomplishment of desirable results by the individuals – and the teams – that exist within organization.

Similarly, for other readers the focus of their needs assessments may relate directly to the results that their organization accomplishes and how those impact on the lives of others.  For these, organizational performance is about the achievement of organizational objectives and lead to beneficial outcomes for clients, partners, and the community the organization serves.  From the delivery of goods or services, to the achievement of long-term profits for stockholders, to improving the quality of life in local communities, organizational performance is achieved when there is alignment between what an organization uses, does, produces, and delivers with the beneficial impacts that are achieved for others.

Hence, human and organizational performance covers a vast array of topics, disciplines, fields, sectors, technologies, and business models. As such, it is an expedient and pragmatic phrase to use in relation to a needs assessment, since it too can be applied in a host of arenas.  From internal decisions about when to develop training to external choices about how to assist impoverished communities rebuild after a natural disaster, need assessments in all of these situations can rely on the same tools and techniques to collect valuable information, make informed decisions, and improve performance.

The improvement of performance (i.e., closing gaps in results) is central to needs assessment, thus the solutions offered by disciplines associated with human and organizational performance will provide your assessment with many potential options for addressing identified needs.  From succession planning and on-the-job training to mentoring and incentives, the improvement interventions that focus on human and organizational performance offer many options that may be valuable to your organization.

Are we not already doing this?

Yes, no, sometimes, maybe.  Most people do use informal or hit-and-miss needs assessment steps to make some decisions in your lives.  When you buy a new home, for instance, you will likely take time to collect information on schools, re-sale values, neighborhood safety, and other essential criteria to be used in making your final choice.  But when select a primary care physician you will often simply go with the one that most conveniently located to your work or home. Likewise, sometimes you will use more formal decision-making steps in your professional choices, though more often than not you begin your professional decision-making with an answer or solution already in mind; such as when you assume that more training for your staff will improve their performance, ignoring the fact that they don’t have time to do much of what you ask of them.  As a consequence, you frequently make your decisions with relatively little information, modest justifications, few criteria or benchmarks, and most often without a systemic perspective of how your choices impact on the performance others.

In many cases the quality your informal decision-making processes has been good and even been a leading contributor to your success.  Yet, for most of us, your decisions are becoming increasingly complex.  It often seems like you are asked to make increasingly complex decisions on a daily basis in order to keep pace with changes and stay one step ahead of the competition.  While developing new training or creating a new vision statement may have been the answer to many of your decisions in the past, you now know that improving performance in today’s organizations requires the development of sustainable performance systems that address multiple factors that influence individual, team, organizational, or client results — or all of these. Dimensions of performance now include individual and organizational capacity; motivation and self-concept; expectations and feedback; rewards, incentives, and recognition; environment, resources, and processes; skills and knowledge; as well as strategic, tactical, and operational directions (based on Wedman’s Performance Pyramid).

Many times, your decisions are practically made for us; for instance, when a Vice President in your organizations decides that all customer service representatives should go through a new communications training program that they heard about at a conference last month (in Hawaii, of course).  Nevertheless, to achieve sustainable performance improvements you must step back and determine if the presented activity is simply a solution in search of problem.  Sometimes the prematurely selected activity will be a valuable component to improving performance, other times you may have to recommend alternatives.  In either case, use a systematic needs assessment process to justify those decisions and you will be able to better ensure that improvement activities actually lead to the desired results.

Similarly, the solutions presented may include new bridges, new computers, more money, more staff, or any of a thousand ideas that may be useful in improving performance.  Thus the challenge isn’t finding out what ideas people have for improving performance; rather the challenge is identifying and measuring the true gap that exist between the results that should be accomplished and the current achievements. 

Formal and informal needs assessments can – and should — be part of your professional decisions-making, though these systematic processes are not intrinsic to most organizational practice.  By conducting formal needs assessments on a regular basis you can build expertise in the related procedures, customize standardized models for application in your decisions, and then include these steps as inherent characteristics of your informal daily decision-making as well.  In this manner you can not only improve your decisions about what performance improvement activities to undertake, you can also internalize informal processes that will improve the quality of all decisions you make.

When should you conduct a needs assessment?

You will find that completing a needs assessment, either formally as part of a major business decision or informally when weighing optional daily choices, can be a value practice on most days. From determining if (and how) a new automated information management system can be of value to your organization to deciding when (and how) to provide performance feedback to your staff, many decisions can benefit from the collection of additional information and systematic application of that information into your decision-making; and needs assessments do just that. 

Since needs assessment help inform decisions, they can be used proactively to identify opportunities to improve performance, reactively in response to the consequences of less than desirable results, or continuously as an integrated component of a continual improvement program.  This makes needs assessments a valuable tool for decisions makers at all levels of an organization and in most any role. From those wanting to improve individual performance or working to create a new initiative within the organization to those charged with developing complex programs with external partners or improving the outcomes of long-running organizational undertakings, needs assessment can be used to either formally or informally guide decisions. Nevertheless, whether the needs assessment is proactive, reactive, or continual, the needs assessment processes are best applied to inform performance-related (or results-focused) decisions.

Needs assessment can also help you avoid missteps. Often, the simple answers to your professional challenges don’t provide the systemic solutions that you are ethically responsible to provide.  After all, for every performance problem there is a solution that is simple, straightforward, acceptable, understandable… and WRONG. For instance, human resource officers commonly hear managers requesting new or additional training in a variety of organizational areas.  While training may initially seem to be a reasonable solution to the organizational problems being faced by the manager, an informed decision about how to improve performance requires that additional information be considered before rushing ahead with any single solution.  Most often, organizational challenges are not linked to any single cause; such as the perceived inadequate knowledge or skills of others. 

Systems of solutions focus on building the capabilities of individuals and the capacity of the organization.  These multi-activity systems are typically required to change behavior and improve results.  Thus a needs assessments can guide decision makers in evaluating the complex needs (or performance gaps) of an organization in order to come to solutions that address the systemic issues related to performance rather than merely the symptoms.

The following statements are often good indicators that a needs assessment may be the appropriate next step before making any decisions:

“They really want this program to be put in place by next year.”

“We need to provide more training to people working in the Ministry of Agriculture.”

“At last week’s meeting you decided that introducing [insert current title of best selling management book] would be a good place to start building capacity.”

“They need to go to leadership training.”

“If you had [insert latest technology gadget] then you would be more productive.”

“You need to do an evaluation as part of that project.”

When you hear these, or similar statement about what should be done, it is usually a good time to step-back and ensure that you know where you are headed before you take the first step.  After all, if you are not headed in the right direction you could end up someplace other than where you want to be.

In addition to being reactive, needs assessments can, and should, also be a proactive or continuous part of your professional decision making.  You can, for instance, use a needs assessment as an integrated part of a strategic or annual planning effort.  In these situations the needs assessment provides continual feedback on the gaps between current and desired results to the planning process. These gaps will commonly fluctuate greatly from year-to-year, or as organizational goals and objectives shift in relation to external pressures or opportunities.  Yet, without needs assessment data it is challenging for plans to provide essential direction for an organization; long-term goals that are only related to current realities (such as improved customer service or being #1) are rarely of value to the individuals and teams in the organization that must complete tasks for the organization’s results to be accomplished. Thus a needs assessment can help you find alignments between the long-term strategic objectives of the organization and what the people — inside and outside of the organization — find of value.

As you all know, for better or worse most strategic plans only sit on bookshelves gathering dust. But this should not be the case; strategic plans should be used to guide decisions in your organizations. And by pairing strategic planning with needs assessments you can help bring plans into action. Then, while strategic planning efforts ensure that the organization knows where it is going, regular needs assessments will provide critical information for applying those plans to valuable decisions.

Use needs assessments proactively, continually, and reactively in your organization. 
1. Proactively to identify potential opportunities for improving individual or organizational performance.
2. Continually to monitor your progress toward accomplishing desired results.
3. Reactively when new strategic, tactical, or operational objectives are to be achieved.

How does a needs assessment relate to a needs analysis?

As you have defined it, a needs assessment is a process for both identifying and prioritizing needs (or gaps in results).  Therefore the assessment must distinguish and measure needs by collecting information through processes such as interviews, focus groups, surveys, document reviews, performance observations, and other techniques.  Subsequently, in order to prioritize needs the assessment must also analyze the identified needs to determine their contributing factors, the related costs, as well as estimates for improving performance in relation to the needs. The later process, of prioritizing needs, requires that you delve further into the identified needs in order to make reliable estimations of what factors are leading the performance gap and what it could take to close the discrepancy.

As part of your needs assessment, therefore, a needs analysis process will guide you in the examination of each gap in results (need) to determine its component parts and how to do those contributing factor influence the discrepancy between current and desired performance.  Based on this information, along with estimates of the cost the meet the need versus the cost to ignore the need, you will then have information for making decisions about which needs should be high and low priorities. Consequently, a needs analysis is a practical, useful, and fundamental step in the completion of a needs assessment. 

When you consider the differences between assessment and analysis, the relationships between needs assessment and various analysis processes is clarified.  An assessment is simply a process used to identify and appraise the importance, size, value, or worth of something in comparison to other similar items.  In the case of needs assessment you are identifying and appraising performance gaps in order to make decisions about what actions should (or should not) be taken to improve human and organizational performance. 

An analysis, by comparison, is a process to separate a whole into its parts in order to identify the components, and their relationships. Thus, when you consider needs analysis, front-end analysis, root-cause analysis, or performance analysis you can see that these are processes that apply the results of a needs assessment in determining the details of why the needs are present in your organization.

With this in mind, needs assessments become an essential precursor to analysis procedures. You must, in other words, go through a process for identifying and comparing your performance needs before you can enter into a set of procedures to analyze performance, needs, or even root-causes.  In serving the role of providing a process for collecting information and guiding decisions, a needs analysis is nevertheless an essential part to any needs assessment. Without the analysis processes you would simply have identified needs without procedures, tools, or techniques for prioritizing those performance discrepancies for closure.

How does a needs assessment relate to other tools you are already using, like front-end analysis, root-cause analysis, or performance analysis?

Needs assessments are a core-management process for making decisions.  From formal procedures for highly complex decisions to informal processes for everyday decisions, needs assessments are used to make all types of professional choices. As a consequence, needs assessments are frequently used in complement to many other organizational processes; including strategic planning, benchmarking, reengineering, process improvement, performance management, and performance improvement.

In addition, needs assessments are often a closely related precursor to kin processes such as needs analysis, front-end analysis, root-cause analysis, and performance analysis. Each of these processes then provides a distinct perspective to the analysis of results generated by the needs assessment. For instance, a root-cause analysis will dissect the individual needs derived from the needs assessment to identify and compare the causal-factors in an effort to determine which are at the foundation of the performance gap and deserve attention. A root-cause analysis is most valuable when you have a well defined process in place and you are searching for a human, procedural, equipment, or environment failure in the process that can be improved upon.

Similarly, the front-end and performance analyses build on findings from a needs assessment (and needs analysis) to link the identified and priorities needs to specific performance improvement activities.  From mentoring programs and training, to recruitment strategies and process re-engineering, these analysis procedures can help guide your decisions about what to do in response priority needs.

Consequently, formal and informal needs assessments are common partners in many (if not most) other essential organizational processes.  Needs assessments can inform strategic planning, benchmarking, performance management, and many other core-management processes with value information to guide their successful implementation. Likewise, needs assessment procedures, tools, and techniques are applied in making decisions from board-rooms to field-offices, and within organizations of all sizes.  Hence, most often you will want a needs assessment to be an integrated component of your improvement efforts, rather than a one-time activity or independent event.  With needs assessment processes as the foundation, you can then effectively use a variety of analysis procedures and potential improvement activities together to create a multifaceted initiative that improves performance from multiple angles and perspectives.

Isn’t an evaluation the same thing?

Not really.  Both assessment and evaluation are important to human and organizational improvement, but they serve different functions.  These distinctive processes differ in the perspectives they apply when collecting information and guiding decisions. One is an assessment perspective that is more closely associated with strategic planning, and the other an evaluative perspective that is more closely associated with cost-effectiveness or cost-efficiency analyses.  Collecting and viewing data from both of these perspectives is essential for effective and pragmatic decision-making; yet the differences in how theses perspectives are translated into practice requires particular attention 

An assessment perspective, which you apply when conducting a needs assessment, collects of information that identifies the gaps between current results and required/desired results (or needs) and then appraises those needs for determining priorities and comparing alternative activities that may help improve performance.  Hence, this approach to collecting and analyzing information takes place before any decisions are made about what activities are to be implemented, which vendors are to be used, or even what products are to be expected.  Needs assessments are, consequently, frequently completed in partnership with planning efforts in order to define where an organization is headed and how it plans to get there.

In contrast, an evaluation perspective is applied when decisions about what to do have already been made and you are trying to either improve performance or determine the value added by current processes. From this perspective you approach an evaluation from a different vantage point and therefore your processes serve a different, yet equally important, function within an organization. Evaluations are therefore frequently done in partnership with other cost-value analyses.

Nevertheless, the required shift in perspective from an after-the-fact evaluation to a before-the-fact assessment, alters how you use the information collection and decisions making tools and techniques.  Throughout this book you have made a conscious effort to describe each of the tools and techniques for collecting information and making decisions from a decidedly needs assessment perspective.  From delaying decisions about what activities to undertake until after the assessment is complete to establishing useful criteria for comparing alternative activities that will help accomplish desired results, the needs assessment perspective applied to the tools and techniques covered in this book can guide you making justifiable decisions about what to do, before-the-fact.

Even so, the roles of assessments and evaluations in organizations differ in purpose or function, rather than importance. Each helps answer important questions and provides useful guidance for improving performance.  The assessment perspective seeks to anticipate the expected value of potential interventions before they are implemented; enabling decision-makers to choose among competing alternatives. The evaluation perspective, in contrast, collects information to determine if current results match the expectation of interventions or solutions that have already been implemented. Apply both approaches when they are appropriate and you are on your way to creating a very effective performance system.

How about a training needs assessment?

Placing your needs assessment in a training-only context is a fundamentally flawed way to begin your assessment.  After all, training is just one of many activities that you will want to consider when making performance improvement decisions. Yet, a training needs assessment intentionally defines the improvement activity before the assessment process begins; leaving you with a solution in search of problem.

And as you all know, if you give someone a hammer — everything starts to look like a nail.

In the 1980s, the phrase “training needs assessment” became a popular way to describe most any process for determining what content should go into a training course.  While making decisions about the content of training course is important, this is not the best use of needs assessment processes, tools, or techniques.  Just as you would not want to conduct a mentoring needs assessment or a lay-off needs assessment, you do not want to prematurely select training as the hammer for every nail in your organization.

Instead, keep all of your options on the table.  Conduct your needs assessments without any preconceived notions about which improvement activities will be most valuable to your organization; listening to others inside and outside of your organization, maintaining an open perspective to creative ideas, and collecting information that will justify your recommendations or decisions in the end.

Similar to the evaluation perspective describe previously, you can nevertheless use many of the tools and techniques described in this book to determine what content should go into a training course. Use focus groups, fishbone diagrams, task analyses, and other techniques to collect valuable information to inform those decisions; but only after you have completed a needs assessment that finds training is an appropriate activity to achieved desired results.  Many times it is part of an effective performance improvement system, but an impartial needs assessment is the best process for informing that decision.

Can’t you just send out a survey asking what people want?

No. While the individual perspectives on what people want to have done within an organization is quite valuable in making informed decisions, by itself it is of little value when making decisions. Asking people what they want also sets up, the likely false, expectation that they will get exactly what they want.  Thus, you strongly recommend that you don’t go down this path.

Instead, use a variety of the needs assessment tools and techniques described in this book to gain performance information from various perspectives.  For example, you could use the Delphi Technique to prioritize perspectives on performance gaps among divisions within your organization; perspectives within manufacturing or sales versus priorities from accounting or human resources.  Likewise, you can survey organizational partners to determine what they view as the essential results you should contribute in the future and how those compare to current performance.  Lastly, you could then use a Cross-Impact Analysis to verify that decisions in one area of your organization only make positive contributions to the other parts of the organizations; rather than unintended negative consequences.

By going far beyond simply asking people what they want, you can create a needs assessment that collects valuable information from multiple perspectives and guides justifiable decisions. Use multiple tools and techniques, and stay away from questions that may build unrealistic expectations.

What types of performance interventions should be considered in a needs assessment?

Depending on the needs, wants, priorities, and current activities already in place within your organization, there are literally hundreds of activities — and combinations of activities — that you should consider when trying to improve performance and accomplish significant results. From succession planning to e-learning and mentoring to incentives, you should examine the strengths and weaknesses of numerous alternatives to see which will work best for you and your organization. Here is a quick list, though it is far from exhaustive:

Strategic Planning; Scenario Planning; Workforce Planning; Job Forecasting; Table Top Exercises;  Performance Guidelines; Reference Manuals For Processes And Procedures; Quality Assurance Programs; On-Boarding or Orientation Programs;  Benchmarking; Performance Appraisals; Upward and Peer Evaluations; Identification and Documentation of Performance Indicators; Process Reengineering; Ergonomics; Workstation Design; Succession Planning; Warning Systems; Labeling and Color Coding; Safety Planning; Social Networking; TQM; Bonus Systems; Commission Systems; Profit Sharing; Merit Award Systems; Performance-based Budgeting; Payroll Reforms; Annual Awards Ceremony; Employee Of The Month; Personnel In The Spot Light; Competency Mapping; Recruitment Programs; Retention Programs; Early Retirement; Phased Retirements; Interviewing;  Affirmative Action Programs; Outplacement Centers; Cross Training; Internal Recruitment Programs;  Traditional Training; Structured OJT; Brown Bag Lunch Sessions; Webinars; Podcasts or Vodcasts; Non-formal Learning; Job Sharing; Flex Hours; Education Benefits; Career Counseling; Career Ladders; Job Rotation Systems; Supply Chain Management; Cash Flow Analysis; Budgeting and Accounting Systems; Quality Programs; Six Sigma; Program Evaluations; Future Search; SWOT;  Appreciative Inquiry;  Restructuring; Organizational and Financial Structures; Realistic Job Previews; Assessment And Feedback;  Performance Dashboards; Performance Coaching;  Performance  Management; EPSS; Job Aids; Knowledge Management;  Change Management; Process Improvement;  Incentive Systems; Reward and Recognition Systems; Executive Compensation;  Motivational Communications; Career Counseling Mentoring Programs; Emotional Well-Being and Work;  E-Learning; Team Learning & Performance; Mentoring; Executive Leadership Coaching; Outsourcing; Organizational Cultures; Diversity and Cultural Competence; etc.
Nevertheless, needs assessments are not about choosing one improvement activity from a list; you should compare and contrast numerous activities — and differing combinations of activities — to determine which are accomplish desirable and sustainable results. Systems Theory tells us that there are always numerous options for accomplishing results within an open system, that each of the systems are both interdependent and interconnected, and that success in one subsystem has the potential to sub-optimize the success of the whole system. Thus, single-solutions or “quick fixes” are rarely going to achieve desired results in complex organizational systems.