Learning Needs Analyses: A practitioner's view

According to 19th century German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

Written by Emerald Works
Published 29 January 2016
Learning Needs Analyses: A practitioner's view
"That may be true," says Roger Mayo, L&D specialist, "but it's no reason not to have a battle plan“ and the same thing is true of learning needs analyses (LNA)."

In Roger's view, L&D professionals who fail to complete a thorough LNA for the business are missing a great opportunity. He says, "They deny themselves the chance to present their findings and associated solutions at the appropriate levels. They also lose the chance to raise their business profile, transforming L&D's contribution and its perceived value." An LNA must be grounded in the organization's strategy, demonstrating that it has the unique "feel" of the organization about it. It needs to be written and, if appropriate, illustrated, to communicate "organization feel" to maximize its credibility. "It may, if done well, mimic the structure and approach of the business strategy itself," says Roger. "It can then directly demonstrate that it provides contributory and complementary solutions to the organization's needs and business requirements."

This means that L&D professionals need to be able to bridge the gap between "now" and "then" -  shaping and then delivering well-formed outcomes. In order to complete this activity, L&D professionals must be able to speak and write the unique language of their business, and fully understand the direction it is going in.

"This only comes from a thorough understanding of what people actually do - the tasks and processes of their everyday working lives," says Roger. "Knowing your target audience from the analysis is critical. And it's important to keep the language crisp and avoid words and phrases that create negative responses.

"Sense checking, if possible with someone who's respected for their approach and ability to bring about effective change, is always a useful step in document creation." Developing organizational capability and delivering on the promises to the customer with the appropriate profitability are the prizes that L&D can help an organization to win.

"Yet, credibility is essential if this is going to be carried out effectively." Senior managers and other leaders in the organization may still regard the L&D function as simply a provider of courses from which they do their shopping following the annual appraisal. In Roger's view, demonstrating thorough business knowledge is an edge that the L&D function must maintain if it's to avoid becoming a candidate for outsourcing - which, over the last decade, has been the fate of many HR and L&D functions.

"Done well, LNA can be a great tool for impressing and raising the profile for the whole learning function," Roger asserts. "It can provide a reference point and authority for L&D work for a significant time into the future. It promotes the function as an enabler of business results.

This makes L&D a business partner - and that can bring you, as an L&D professional, to the top table." Completing an LNA requires further competencies that help in turning business priorities into learning needs, engaging stakeholders and senior managers, and getting them to shape the L&D strategy.

For example, imagine that an organization announces its strategic intent to raise its On Time in Full (OTIF) ratio from 87 percent to 99 percent. It's seen the need to get closer to industry norms and avoid business loss. The L&D professional needs to help this change process and engage the relevant business managers in the process. At its highest level, an LNA establishes the organization's macro learning needs, which, if unfulfilled, could mean that the business won't adapt to tomorrow's challenges.

So, 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? And what actions will result? With these questions answered and with a well-formed outcome, the L&D professional can consider the processes and actions needed to bring about 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, the marketplace changes, current capability, levels of performance, and the organizational climate. Relevant information and data 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.

"If this information doesn't exist, don't invest a disproportionate amount of time sourcing it and getting diverted from the main task in hand," advises Roger. "The timing of introducing or refining accurately defined capabilities is essential so that this dovetails into the overall strategic intent.

"The LNA needs also to take account of the context for the learning interventions. In this way, the organization's values and ways of doing things can be espoused through the analysis and subsequent interventions - again to reinforce the culture that is championed."

There may also be legislative requirements, especially in the fields of safety, diversity, discrimination, and equal opportunities. These need to be woven into the overall framework of the analysis - and often require a demonstration of training to ensure compliance.

"The LNA will also have to take account of how learning is best communicated and absorbed within the organization," says Roger. "This understanding will give the best chance for the new capabilities - and the consequent change to be absorbed by the relevant target groups.

"Moreover, as part of the process, always take the opportunity to actively listen to business managers, ask focused questions so you can be continually teasing out needs and exploring opportunities to assist in the resolution of business issues."

About the author

Emerald Works

Emerald Works

At Emerald Works, we’re committed to helping individuals and organizations around the world realize their full potential by using evidence-led learning solutions that work.

We work together to build learning cultures that empower people to bring about real change for real impact.

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