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Why Should I Have to Run a Needs Survey?

Needs SurveyI have been in training situations where a needs survey either wasn’t done or totally ignored.  I have talked to other trainers who felt the same way – we went into the workshop with material prepared for one topic and the participants took the learning a totally different direction.  Life happens and that is part of our job description to adapt on the fly.  However, the training would have been more useful if we had the correct materials with us when we went in.  Because this has happened several times I have started to wonder why needs assessments don’t play a bigger part in training.  To help organizations, training participants and trainers get more out of workshops and seminars, I have pulled together information from several sources to help develop, administer and understand results from needs surveys.

Running a needs survey can basically be broken down into five different tasks:

  1. Determine the scope of the survey
  2. Develop questions
  3. Beta test survey
  4. Administer survey
  5. Crunch the numbers

I will cover each of these but today will start with Determining the scope of the survey.

The scope of a needs survey actually covers several different areas:

  • The topic(s) to be included in the survey
  • The survey participants
  • The time frame the survey will be available

A needs survey topic comes from what are you trying to get more information about.  For illustration we will track through the development of a needs survey to determine what training is needed for a state agency.  Something caused a question to be raised about the current level of competency in this agency.  The topic may have been brought up at a staff meeting by a supervisor saying that her staff again told her they don’t know how to mail merge letters.  It may have been a calendar item in HR that said it’s time to look at staff development.  The call for training may have come from stake holders who feel there is a need.  Hopefully it wasn’t nearing the end of the budget year and there were training dollars that still needed to be spent (but I have been sent out to train in this situation – it could have gone better).  Whatever the reason someone decided it is time to get some training and it is your job to prepare a needs survey.  The topic for the survey in our example has been narrowed to at least software and probably even down to Microsoft’s Word.  If you include questions about compliance or administrative procedures training in the same survey it will confuse the participants and muddy the survey results.  Keep your survey topics narrow enough for participants to clearly understand both the questions and the intent of the survey.  At the same time be sure to adequately gather the needed information the first time without needing a follow-up survey.  We will talk about question construction a little later.

The second part of a survey’s scope is who should participate in the survey. 

Too often needs surveys amount to nothing more than a voice vote from a limited number of people – some of whom aren’t even directly involved in the task being impacted by the training.  A good needs survey will include as many people as possible who will be directly affected by the training – even if they are the ones who will be attending it.  The supervisor who initialed the training for mail merges probably won’t attend the training but she has hopes for the skills improvement that should be an outcome of the training.  The problem may be that she didn’t accurately communicate those to the employee and so they don’t know what they are supposed to be learning.  Surveying everyone who will be impacted by the training, whether they will be attending or not, can help to improve the return on investment from any training.

The third part of scope is the time frame for the survey to be available. 

Time frame includes when it will be administered and how long participants will have to complete their portion of the survey.  Determining time frame can be as much art as science but here are some ideas for you to factor into your survey.  First, it is generally a bad idea to give participants just one day to complete a survey.  That would be even worse to limit that one or two days to a Friday and or a Monday.  Participants will usually not put as much time or energy into a survey on those days as they would on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.  That’s the logic applies staff meetings, sales calls and emails but part four of this series will talk more about what days and time to send out your surveys.  It’s also usually a bad idea to run a survey in the run up to a major holiday.  The second part of time frame is how long will the survey be available for participants to access and respond.  One or two days is usually not enough to expect a good response rate.  My experience is 3-5 days give enough time for participants to complete a survey and still not have any major change in needs or attitudes.  Which brings up a point we will spend more time on later – a needs survey is a snapshot of the needs of an organization at one point in time.  It is not a document set in concrete that dictates training for all time.  Needs surveys should be run periodically when major changes have happened to an organization or after enough time has passed that needs and/or attitudes may have changed.  I use to run one at the beginning of the school year in a school district I worked in to determine the training that was to be provided that year.

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