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What's at Risk When You Focus Only on Learning During Needs Analysis

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

I used to think that Needs Analysis meant interviewing the SME and reading all of the related documentation. That was it. I just needed to know what students needed to know.

I treated it like I treated the curriculum development process for drafting my course syllabuses as a writing instructor, failing to realize that those courses were effective because I knew the learning context quite well. I was an active participant in it.

I honestly don't remember when or how I finally learned that it wasn't enough to just look at the learning content when you're deciding how to develop training, but I CAN tell you that it's true. You can watch my video about how I almost bombed a multi million dollar test prep project if you want some proof.

There is more to the learning context than just the content and the learning objectives. Now, I use a three-part needs framework to facilitate fact-finding during discovery calls and kickoff meetings.

  1. Organization - What are the goals of the company beyond this single training?

  2. Performance - What would it look like if these learners were operating in a ideal way, and what does it look like now?

  3. Learners - What drives and distracts the learners?

Why is this important? Well, let's use a hypothetical based on current events to discuss.

Right now, the Black Lives Matter movement is running at full steam, and many organizations are looking to put together diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training as a response to the protests that have been ignited by George Floyd's death. You're asked to put eLearning together based on a hefty Powerpoint deck and a list of blog articles from BIPOC writers. You see that there's plenty of content there to work from, it seems like they consulted the right experts, and you feel like you have some interesting ways to teach the content.

Can you do it?

Sure, you're a talented learning designer. I'd bet you could produce a visually appealing, engaging learning product, but if you haven't considered the ways in which this training will be implemented, then your beautiful training just might miss its mark.

Before diving into this assignment, at the most basic level, I'd want to know quite a few things. Starting with my 3-part framework, I might ask:


  • Is the organization ready to support the DEI messaging?

  • What do their measurable goals for DEI look like?


  • Are you offering generic training for a specific problem?

  • Are there roadblocks that prevent them from being able to do what they're being trained to do?


  • How do the learners access their learning content?

  • Who would be assigned to complete this training?

This might lead to other questions for me as the designer, like:

  • Is eLearning really the best solution?

  • What kind of support is required to develop this content?

  • Has the company ever provided DEI training before, and if so, how did it go over?

To be frank, I'm doubtful that traditional eLearning would be the right solution for this complex issue, especially if it were the only solution.

If you were in this scenario, you'd probably find yourself dealing with some challenging questions, and you might have some tough conversations with your client in the interest of producing something that meets their actual needs and helping real people.

So what's at risk?

Without doing the needs analysis groundwork, you simply couldn't know whether or not the solution was worth implementing.

At best, you might design something wasteful.

Maybe SMEs wasted time giving you information. Maybe you wasted time creating a learning experience that should have been a group conversation with leadership. Maybe the company wasted money creating a training nobody found useful. Either way, there's a cost to wasted training.

At worst, you might design something that makes people want to leave the organization.

In this case, the optics of poorly executed DEI training can be devastating. If training comes across as an after-thought or unauthentic, folks might believe the organization is not invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion. This messaging can quickly spread beyond employees forced to take the training. Poorly design training on this complex subject could also be harmful to those already most impacted. Quite frankly, I've already seen and had to advise against some well-intentioned, poorly planned training like this. It's out there.

Make time to do the analysis. If not for the altruistic reason of providing better content to your clients and learners, then do it because it makes you look like a problem-solver. Do it because it will help move you towards leadership and career growth. Or do it because you want to work smarter and not harder and because needs analysis actually makes the rest of the development process easier. Just make sure to do it.

That said, you don't need to expend the same amount of time and energy on needs analysis for every project. Understanding organizational goals, even at the most surface level, will help you determine the value of that work to the organization and the learners. After answering those questions at a high level, you can decide whether you need to do a deep dive. For me, that's the difference between a discovery call, a kickoff meeting, and a thorough consultation.

But there is simply too much at stake-- time, money, resources, talent-- to skip needs analysis altogether.


Need some better questions for needs analysis?

Check out the FREE Discovery Call Question List.

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