9 Common Misconceptions about Needs Assessment

Needs assessment (NA) is a starting point for many different types of projects. Despite its foundational status and many benefits, it is not widely discussed in applied practice or in research. NA should not be confused with “not applicable” (N/A) – all organizations in all industries can benefit from this practice. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about NA that may be preventing you from experiencing these benefits. Here are 9 common misconceptions about NA and the reasons why you should explore NA and its benefits in your organization:

  1. NA is a waste of money. All projects come with a price tag and the price for an NA project will vary depending on size and scope. The value of NA is not only in the identification and documentation of organizational needs, but in the multitude of ways that information can be leveraged (e.g., writing job descriptions, designing selection systems, designing training programs).
  2. NA is a waste of time because I already know what the needs are. Thinking you know what the needs are and actually engaging in an evidence-based process to identify and document them are very different. Sometimes you may find that you were right about the general need (i.e., we need a new training program), but NA offers much more detailed information to help you achieve your goals (specific learning objectives for the trainees). Other times, you will find that designing a new training program isn’t the answer and that another existing solution can save you time and money.
  3. NAs are top-down processes that don’t affect or benefit employees. While the employer may initiate a NA, employees are a critical part of the success of the intervention – yes, I said intervention. NAs are like any other organizational intervention and even the process of asking employees what they do and how they do it can create reactions and questions about the purpose of gathering the information. Fundamentally, the process of NA should improve how organizations work and create alignment between organizational systems, thus benefitting employees and employers.
  4. NAs are “one and done.” The information gathered from an NA does have a shelf life and that shelf life varies based on the scope and uses for the NA information. Instead of thinking about NA as a process that is done only once, it’s important to plan for ways to update the NA over time and ensure that the information stays current.
  5. All NAs look the same. NAs can be done at different levels – organizational level needs assessments look at larger issues, such as policy, while a task and knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) approach looks specifically at the work and worker requirements for a particular job. How data are collected and who participates will vary depending on the goals. 
  6. NAs won’t work for my company or industry. One of the best things about NA is that it can work for any job and work in any industry. The key is to realize that NA is an organizational intervention and that it’s important to involve key stakeholders from the beginning of the project and throughout to ensure success.
  7. NAs are only used for compliance and documentation. NAs are often referenced in test specifications or other documents that are associated with compliance and documentation. This use, while important, is not the only reason for NA. In fact, one of the best side effects of NA is giving employees an opportunity to provide input and participate in the process of designing solutions that will meet their needs.
  8. NAs don’t focus on the context in which work is performed. While most traditional NA processes focus on the work or the worker, there are ways to incorporate questions and information that highlight the unique features of each work context or environment. For a discussion of Work Context and how to integrate it into work analysis or NA projects, see my chapter in the Handbook of Work Analysis: Methods, Systems, Applications, and Science of Work Measurement in Organizations.
  9. NAs are rigid processes with no creative design. While there are many best practices and methods for NA, there is a lot of room for creativity and customization to meet your unique needs. The NA toolbox is full of resources and each project will be built differently.

Send us your thoughts: What are some of the benefits you have seen from conducting or participating in needs assessments in your organizations?