Find out what’s wrong before you fix it

Almost every company knows that it must take an active part in training its workforce, preparing employees for jobs, promotions and future changes. Certainly employees expect, and even demand, that a company provide educational opportunities throughout their working careers.

The large number of courses, seminars and special training programs that are currently offered each year attest to the fact that we have accepted the idea of lifelong education. But one of the major problems confronting managers and human resource development departments is trying to decide who needs what kind of training, at what level and how much they need.

All too often someone in management sends someone for training for all the wrong reasons. Managers routinely send people off to their quota of courses without thinking about objectives. Employees are simply told “It’s your turn to take a course next month. Pick one of these three and take it.”

Little thought is given to whether the course is good, relevant or of interest to the firm or the employee. They become unwilling captives who are bored, resentful and poor learners.

The only acceptable approach to training is to determine exact needs — who needs what kind of training and how much of it they actually require.

When a school teacher is faced with a new class of students with varying levels of ability, knowledge, backgrounds and experience, he doesn’t simply start out assigning lessons by guesswork. Good teachers always test pupils to determine needs. The same principle applies in the business world.

So how do HR professionals find out what people need? Simply ask employees what needs fixing and what issues are creating problems.

There are several ways to accomplish this. You can interview people, asking a number of questions in an attempt to collect useful information. The problem is that you have to ask the right questions, and the same ones, to a representative sample of staff. You also have to hope that they will be honest.

A better approach is to circulate a questionnaire, collect the responses and analyse the results. Here too, problems of confidentiality may arise.

Depending on the level of employee trust in an organization, HR’s in-house skills sets and the size of the employee population being surveyed, hiring an outside consultant could be the way to go.

There are several good reasons for doing this. For one thing, people will often confide in an outsider when they won’t with someone from inside the organization.

The process requires using a needs assessment instrument to measure attitudes and feelings, identify potential danger spots and uncover hidden problems that may become major issues if action is not taken. These instruments will gather data on your communication system, adequacy of planning, quality of supervision, interpersonal relationships, job satisfaction, productivity and an unlimited number of other dimensions.

There are a number of important questions to ask when evaluating the various needs assessment instruments. Does it provide for complete confidentiality?

Does it ask the questions you want to ask? Can it be customized to include questions of particular importance to your firm? Can the results be divided between departments, divisions, levels of management?

How long will it take to fill out the forms? People lose patience and interest with seemingly endless numbers of questions. Find one that takes no more than one half hour to administer.

Consider how long will it take to get the results? Anything more than two to three weeks is too long. What will the results look like when you get them? Will there be graphs, charts or diagrams to help you interpret the data?

Finally, there are two cautions to keep in mind. Beware of any vendor claiming to have comparative norms for your industry. Matching the feelings and attitudes of your workforce with the feelings and attitudes of some other group in another place, at another time, under different circumstances doesn’t mean a thing. Last, but most important, never use a needs assessment instrument unless you will be able to do something as a result of the findings. Asking your people what is wrong and then ignoring their comments is worse than never having asked in the first place.

John Towler is a psychologist and senior partner of Creative Organizational Design, a firm specializing in assessments and surveys. He may be contacted at [email protected], (519) 884-6411 or visit

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