Building capability through learning needs analysis

There’s always been a difference between an organisation’s knowledge, skills and competencies and those it wants to have, says Bob Little. A learning needs analysis can help you identify the gaps, and provide a route map for L&D.

In recent years, as the pace of change – in business practices, market forces and technology – has increased, the skills gaps that exist in organisations have grown ever wider. In turn, this has increased the importance of identifying skills gaps and then taking steps to try and reduce them.

Done objectively and thoroughly, a learning needs analysis (LNA) provides data for evidence-based worker assessment. Moreover, the process prompts managers to take responsibility for, and an active interest in, their teams’ on-going development. This should hopefully result in team members feeling supported and encouraged, leading to improved work performance.

Organisational leaders may still regard the L&D function as merely a provider of courses from which they do their shopping following the annual appraisal! However, an LNA should help L&D professionals determine objectives, create effective development plans and – only then – L&D programmes. 

Conducting an LNA
Conducting a LNA involves managers formally discussing with their teams and documenting everyone’s learning needs. Then the managers, in consultation with L&D professionals, can identify any knowledge, skills and attitude gaps. 

Relating these gaps to the organisation’s goals, strategy and budget should produce a series of targets. These provide the rationale for related L&D activities.

How skills gaps are going to be closed is, of course, a key issue. In these days of technology-enabled informal learning, the most effective answer may not be a standard, formal, classroom-delivered course.

Ten key questions 

Some key areas to address as part of the LNA process are:

  1. What knowledge and skills do the workers need so they can carry out their role effectively?
  2. What existing relevant knowledge and skills do these workers have? 
  3. What do workers need to know, or do, to get their team and/or organisation to function effectively and efficiently?
  4. How do workers’ attitudes impact the effective and efficient functioning of their team and/or organisation?
  5. What internal (eg. procedural, cultural, strategic) changes and objectives affect these answers?
  6. What external (eg. legislative, compliance and regulatory) changes affect these answers?
  7. Do workers recognise and accept the gaps that are revealed?
  8. How are these gaps going to be closed?
  9. How is the gap-closing process going to be measured and evaluated, and within what timescale?
  10. What processes are in place to ensure that success is achieved?

Limitations and assumptions 

  • Ensure that sufficient data from internal and external sources is collected. 
  • Take into account the data’s limitations – not least that those questioned are realistic about their capabilities, and that the subsequent analysis is accurate and objective. 
  • The gaps being measured must relate to knowledge, skills and attitudes that the organisation will definitely need in the future. Given the rapid rate of change in today’s world of work, this can mean some big assumptions. 
  • You should also determine whether the opinions expressed in the data you’ve collected are justified.

Look and feel
Starting with the end in mind, what will the final document look and feel like? Where will it be discussed? What questions will be answered by its completion? What actions will come about as a result? Answer these questions and you can determine the processes and actions needed to bring the required results. Questions at this tactical level include: 

  • What are the areas to be covered?
  • Who are the main people to be involved?
  • What business division and departments are to be visited?
  • What time is available and when are the critical milestones?
  • What tools will be used?
  • What are the current sources of data?

The information required will include, among other things, the overall business goals for the forthcoming period, marketplace changes, current capability, performance levels and the organisational climate. Relevant information will be found in: 

  • Business plans and strategies
  • Future staffing levels 
  • Audits of current knowledge and skills 
  • Capability requirements of new technology
  • Customer comments and feedback

Other factors
There may be legislative requirements, especially in the fields of safety, diversity, discrimination and equal opportunities, that must be woven into the analysis framework. 

As part of the process, listen actively to business managers. Ask focused questions, continually teasing out needs and exploring opportunities to help resolve business issues. 

Speak and write using the unique language of your business. In the LNA itself, avoid words and phrases that create negative responses.

In today’s rapidly changing world, some people claim LNAs are redundant. New skill sets may also be concerned with knowing where to access relevant job-related knowledge, rather than actually acquiring the skills. On the other hand, while individuals can usually access knowledge, acquiring skills is more difficult, mainly because people don’t always know, or admit to, what they need. A LNA brings everything together neatly in one place, is integrated into the strategic intent of the business and ensures everything is captured. Done well, LNA can promote the learning function as enablers of business results. This makes L&D a business partner, and that can bring you to the top table.

About Bob Little

Bob Little is a communications professional (a writer, editor, commentator, speaker and broadcaster) specialising in the field of corporate L&D, who works internationally.


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