Friday, June 10, 2005

Training Needs Analysis needs analysis

I have yet to meet anyone in the learning business who will question the value of a Training Needs Analysis (TNA). Indeed, there are many who will insist that a TNA is carried out before any work is done on defining or developing training of any kind.

We all know, understand, and value the concept of a TNA, and believe that, in a perfect world, we’d invest time and resources in TNAs whenever we could.

That’s why I was initially surprised when a debate erupted recently over the definition of Training Needs Analyses. On reflection, though, it is clear that “TNA,” rather like “e-learning” or “evaluation” is one of those Alice in Wonderland terms that means exactly what you want it to mean.

As a result, half a dozen learning experts can carry on a conversation about TNAs all day, not realising that they are each talking about rather different things. And a training department can commission a consultant to carry out a TNA, and neither party will know until it is too late that they were each working with very different concepts.

To some, a TNA is a big-picture strategic process that helps define which performance gaps are best addressed by training, and which are best addressed by other means. To others, it is a project-specific tactical analysis which assumes that training is called for and seeks to examine the learning environment and define the optimal instructional processes. To others still, a TNA falls somewhere in the middle, or is an operational process designed to aid in planning and budgeting.

But whatever the motive or focus level, most surely agree that the outcome of a TNA is a clear idea of what has to be done, how it should best be approached. The TNA may also tell you what the recommended approach might cost and what return might be expected.

My own perception of Training Needs Analysis is as a bridge between the strategic and the tactical. I see a TNA as being most useful at a project level, where a specific performance gap has been identified, and objectives to close the gap have been defined.

A TNA would tell you how much of that gap might be addressed by training and at what cost. And, if training is subsequently allocated a role, a more detailed TNA would define precisely what learning objectives would be met, and in what way.

Unfortunately, reality often intervenes. The time and cost taken up by a formal TNA is frequently just not worth the potential benefit. The individual judgment, instincts, and insights of those in training management can often produce a much faster, more practical ‘analysis’ than a formal study. And, in truth, the only time it is worth doing something more formal is when the cost of making a mistake is simply unacceptable.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. It is a perfectly valid way to make decisions. And, despite its not being a formal research-based study, it is still a TNA. To me, a Training Needs Analysis is any analytical process that seeks out and examines relevant information, qualitative or quantitative, with the objective of determining the nature of the role that training can or should play in resolving a performance problem or exploiting a performance opportunity.

In the real world of market research, multi-million dollar budgets are frequently decided on the mutterings of a few dozen people in focus groups and the collective experience of the marketing decision-makers – simply because a statistically significant “proper” research project might take too long, cost too much, and produce a result that you can’t take to the bank anyway.

I am, sadly, an old-school geek, having spent a large part of my academic and work life in the market research field. As a result, I get unreasonably excited about anything that pretends to be a rigorous analytical study but is, in reality, a sloppy or token gesture. I am not talking about the calculated expertise-based decision-making approach mentioned above, but about the attempt to pass off Pseudo-studies as proper research and analysis. I know how easy it is to “prove” just about anything with research, and how assuming what you want to prove can result in a study that conveniently reaffirms your expectations.

I have seen many “TNAs” do just that. They are designed to discover a set of needs that magically coincide with a pre-determined solution. Company training departments are less guilty of this than large outsourced training vendors, who have a rather fixed set of offerings to sell.

They find it more expedient to “customize” their customers’ perceptions of their needs, than to customize the nature of their solution. Probably the worst culprits are the big consulting firms who have a batch of “processes” in their database that they try to surreptitiously syndicate across as many client companies as possible, all under the guise of original tailor-made work. They use token TNAs to do the selling job for them, and usually get paid substantially for those TNAs as well.

It has been said that it doesn’t matter what you call it so long as you do it well. I disagree. While we may never reach an industry-wide consensus, aligning our thinking on what a TNA is does matter. The more we outsource the different aspects of the training role, the more open we become to confusion, ambiguity, and waste, especially if we don’t take the time to define our terms and – more importantly – demand that our business partners define theirs.

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