Approaches to Training Needs Assessment

by Employers Council Staff

Member Matters,  Training and Development

Do you recognize this classic training and development conversation? “We should do some training.” “I agree. Where should we start?” “I guess we should do a training and development needs assessment.” “What’s that?” “It’s a way to discover what knowledge our organization needs to meet its goals, and what training and development we need to meet any gaps.” “ Cool! How do we get started?” “Um…I don’t know.”

Sound way too familiar? Most HR departments recognize that a needs assessment can help them clarify their training and development goals. Without one, you can waste time and money with unfocused or irrelevant learning efforts. But Many HR departments stall out when it comes to the best way to understand employees’ training needs.

It should be simple, right? Notice a performance issue, collect some information, identify training needs, locate the right training and development provider, and implement the training. Done. Unfortunately, what looks simple on paper can become difficult in application. Even experienced trainers can get tripped up on who the assessment should focus on and where and how to collect the best information.

There’s no silver bullet that will create a slam-dunk assessment in every case, but there is a “most useful” approach for your particular situation. How do you decide what kind of assessment process will uncover the answers your organization needs to make progress?

Information sources for high-quality training needs assessments

Let’s start by looking at the kinds of information that normally fuel the process. Training needs assessments can focus on a variety of potential inputs:

  • Subjective attitudes and opinions about perceived training needs
  • Objective measures of current skills and knowledge
  • Concrete samples of day-to-day work
  • Observations and feedback from others

All of these are aspects that can be explored during the needs assessment process. Each adds a unique dimension of contributing factors to help manage the gap identified in the original performance issue. However, to include all of these requires a variety of techniques and data collection devices. You may not have time to chase after all of them — or you may not need to, depending on your training goals. What kinds of needs assessment approaches should you prioritize?

Members: Download our Training Needs Assessment Worksheet to jump start your needs analysis.

Pros and cons to information gathering techniques

All information gathering techniques have their own pros and cons. Some are better suited to specific employee groups or answering certain kinds of questions. Let’s compare:


Best for a high-level snapshot of needs from a large employee population, surveys are probably the most common methodology of needs assessment. Pros? A well-crafted survey can allow you to collect a variety of information about perceived training needs from a large volume of people. If you’re putting together your first training and development plan, this is a great place to start. Cons? The responses are only as good as the questions you ask and the response rate you can achieve. The more detailed you want to get, the longer the survey will run, and the less likely you’ll get employees to finish it without major motivation.


Best for answering nuanced questions that warrant significant time investment, such as C-suite priorities or significant performance issues. One-on-one conversations and focus groups can be great ways to find out about needs and topple some common training and development roadblocks. Pros? Interviews can provide personal and in-depth data about training needs. Cons? They take time to collect, analyze and summarize the information, especially with larger groups.


Best for identifying specific gaps within testable skill sets, like employment law knowledge, for example. Pros? Standardized, validated tests can be an excellent resource for objective information about individuals’ knowledge and skills. Cons? Tests might not be appropriate for some soft skill sets (leadership, creative roles, etc.) If pre-developed tests are not available for your particular needs, test construction can take a lot of time and resources.


Best for when you don’t know where your trouble spots are, and you have plenty of time to spend on assessment. Pros? Watching people engage in the real work in their real environment can provide valuable insights about performance and performance issues. Cons? Observation is time consuming. Every minute spent observing others is a lost minute that could have been spent with other training and development activities.

Work Product Review

Best for short-term, more immediate assessments directly related to close-in business goals. Pros? Evaluating finished work product, reviewing recent performance documents, and even collecting information directly from customers can provide good information about training needs. Cons? These are just a snapshot in time and might be missing information about the context of the work or events surrounding individual performance.

Hopefully, these tips and thoughts allow your next needs assessment to feel just a bit more simple. Still feeling overwhelmed? Give our experienced Training and Development team a call to start your custom training needs assessment today.

About the author
Employers Council Staff