Sometimes I get a call from a client who thinks they need training, and training is not the answer.

A needs assessment is key before starting any training project.

People often want to rush by the needs assessment to save time and get straight to the training. But this research ~ which can be extensive or quite brief ~ benefits you in so many ways.

A needs assessment helps answer questions like:

  • What percentage of downtime is due to employee error?
  • What sales are being lost due to poor communication?

Where is the gap?

  • Do your employees have the skills they need? Why or why not?
  • How are you supporting the use of the proper skills?
  • Are your job aids (user guides, wikis, fact sheets, etc.) easy to read?
  • Does the format and reading level address staff needs?

It will examine what now works and what doesn’t:

  • Is the existing training being measured for reaction? learning? transfer to the job? business impact?
  • If so, where is the break in effectiveness? If not, why not? How can we measure?
  • Is your evaluation strategy asking the right questions?
  • Is there a consistent assessment or measurement of success that each employee must meet to complete the training?

Maybe training isn’t the answer:

  • Are supervisors requiring the use of these new skills?
  • Are your best practices clear to employees?
  • Do you have your resources compiled for training?

Needs assessments are important because we don’t know what we don’t know. Assumptions early on can mean you spend thousands in staff time on the wrong issues or deliver training in the wrong way.

If you know of anyone who needs help with their training, please email this post to them. Often people are responsible for training because they’re subject matter experts so they may not know the importance of or what questions to ask in a needs assessment.

What is your experience with needs assessments?


Cath Profile Pink CroppedCatherine Doucette BPR, MEda learning systems consultant and speaker , has more than 20 years of training and communications experience. She has developed interactive, measurable training for enterprise software to business writing to trash talk (landfill technology) and more. Audiences include those with low income or low literacy, labourers and truck drivers, and well educated professionals.

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Adult Education as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations. She is the Chair of the New Brunswick Chapter of the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD). Contact Catherine to learn more about her services.


  1. Delia Bourne on January 28, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks, very interesting post. In my opinion training is often a knee jerk reaction without enough thinking through of what is actually needed. I love your phrase “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

    • Catherine on January 30, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      It is so true. I have gone into needs assessments thinking I knew the answers,and there’s always something fundamental we would have missed without the research.

  2. Charlotte Henley Babb on January 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    If you don’t know what the problem is, you will throw the wrong solution at it.

    If the only solution you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. Screws don’t hammer well.

    Training needs to address what is lacking.

  3. Lorrie on January 28, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    As a nonprofit manager and grant writer I have begun many a project with needs assessments. These are usually accompanied by asset mapping exercises so that needs can be met by existing resources whenever possible.

  4. Moira Hutchison on January 28, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Excellent post! It’s so true that a needs assessment has to be done in order to really see what’s needed – it’s too easy to think that training is the answer!

  5. Cathy Taughinbaugh on January 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    Great information here. Needs assessments first before training seems the best way to approach this issue. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Liz Bigger on January 28, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    Training in my line of work is a little different…and since I am the only employee…it is all on me, but these are very good questions for any business owner to ask themseleves. Thanks!

  7. Alexandra McAllister on January 28, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Excellent, informative post. Assessments definitely required before training! Thanks so much for sharing!

  8. Mark A. Michael on January 28, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    I think a big one for many is, am I following through with the training I already took? I know I see people who go from program without implementation of what they just learned.

    Assesment is key to make sure I am following through on my plans.

    • Catherine on February 2, 2013 at 3:47 am

      So true. Support for the transfer of skills to the workplace needs to be part of the original training plan. Once you’ve measured learning, you know they know. Then you need to ensure people are supporting the use of the new skills.

  9. Meryl Hershey Beck on January 29, 2013 at 2:15 am

    hmmm….I hadn’t thought of needs assessment and you make some great points. Thanks, Catherine!

  10. Donovan Dreyer on January 29, 2013 at 3:28 am

    Fostering the intrinsic may be another reason not to rely on training. We have innate abilities that we doubt, hinder, and squash in the interest of finding something “better.” Our creativity may flourish by some other approach.

  11. elizabeth maness on January 29, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    I needed to read this! I have to train people and really need to now what they know and what they don’t first! great system!

  12. Anita on January 29, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Very difficult to get answers when we dont have a detailed problem. Begin with the goal and work backwards 🙂

  13. Lisa Birnesser on January 30, 2013 at 12:49 am

    Completing a needs assessment first makes perfect sense. Then the training becomes a targeted use of everyone’s time.Great article, Catherine!

  14. Sally K Witt on January 30, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Great post. Training is such an important subject, and this is such a good perspective,

  15. Carolyn Hughes on January 30, 2013 at 9:36 am

    What good advice! Find out what you need first and then go for the appropriate training. I think you’re right that training is often a knee-jerk reaction to the need of a quick-fix. Excellent post. Thank you!

  16. Carl Mason-Liebenberg on January 30, 2013 at 10:32 am

    You cannot solve what you do not know or understand! Great article…

    • Catherine on January 30, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks, Carl. Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  17. Lisa Frederiksen - on January 30, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Great information, and it makes total sense – will definitely pass along to other trainers.

  18. Sharon O'Day on January 31, 2013 at 12:58 am

    As a lifelong consultant, I too have learned that most companies first need their needs identified. And the problem usually is not what they think it is. Thanks for the great information on assessments, Catherine!

    • Catherine on February 2, 2013 at 3:44 am

      You’re right. Sometimes it takes an outside eye with some specific questions.

  19. Comment worth re-citing from Charlotte Henley Babb

    “If you don’t know what the problem is, you will throw the wrong solution at it. If the only solution you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. Screws don’t hammer well. Training needs to address what is lacking.” Says it all!

  20. increase sales Parsippany NJ on December 19, 2018 at 4:05 am

    Another benefit of increasing the sales skills of your staff by attending sales training courses is that the staff are far more likely to introduce the customer to other products in your portfolio. For example we think of up-selling as the typical “Do you want fries with that?”, but it can be much more complex than that. Great sales people will focus on all products and opportunities that benefit the customers and give better customer service.

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