Training needs assessments: tips for improving effectiveness and efficiency

What training is really needed and how can you maximise its effectiveness?

Capacity building and training are frequently included in technical assistance projects. But how can you really know what training is needed? What training topics are most valuable to your audience? And what format works best to get your message across?

Training Needs Assessments (or Learning Needs Assessments) are one of the tools that we at E Co. use to find out what training is really needed while improving the overall effectiveness of training. These assessments could help you to improve the relevance of your capacity building activities. A needs assessment conducted during project preparation or, if your project has already started, as soon as possible will make your training more targeted and efficient, lead to improved comprehension of your trainees and often save you money (more on this later)!

While Training Needs Assessments must be customized to fit the needs of your project, E Co. suggests several tips that you can use. E Co. recently carried out a Training Needs Assessment as part of its work on an EU-funded project in Belarus led by a SOFRECO-KEMA consortium where we put these tips into practice. In this project a group of technical specialists and managers working on energy efficiency issues was surveyed to inform the design and prioritization of future training.

Tip #1: Understand who are your respondents

Gathering some demographic data on your potential trainees allows you to understand the context of their responses better. In the Belarus project, for example, responses differed significantly between the senior managers and specialists, with managers more interested in preparing bankable investment proposals and making presentations to potential funders. Different training approaches will now be offered to managers and energy specialists. For managers, an evening session – when senior people are more easily available – will include how to use the results of energy audits and develop business plans. For specialists, a two-day detailed technical training sessions will focus on practical assignments including conducting those audits.

In many projects, it may also be appropriate to look at gender-disaggregated results as E Co. has done in Tajikistan. Training Needs Assessments can easily accommodate this need by adding a simple question on the respondent’s gender, alongside other questions such as the level of the respondent within their organization.

Unless demographic questions are very short and simple, it is generally better to include them at the end of the questionnaire. And don’t ask for personal information unless you need it. While you may like to know who responds to your survey, do you really need to? Asking for people’s names can significantly alter responses since respondents then tend to answer what they think they should know, rather than what they do know.

Tip #2: Embrace open-ended questions

While many surveys are long lists of yes/no questions and other structured (fixed response) questions, we favour those that combine both open and closed questions. By handing some control within the Learning Needs Assessment to the future trainee, you allow the respondents an opportunity to think, reflect and give their opinions. In turn, the reward is a much richer understanding of the trainees’ needs, enabling you to customize the subsequent training better.

The trick, of course, it to be able to analyze the diversity of qualitative responses! (Watch out for those interpreting your survey data:  they may have a tendency to completely ignore the qualitative results!) We begin examining the qualitative responses with an eye to creating classifications or categories of quantitative responses, e.g., social/technical, positive/negative, question/recommendation, etc. depending on the question. Only then can we transfer the qualitative responses into quantitative data for subsequent analysis, similar to the approach used by the Most Significant Change technique.

Tip #3: Don’t forget learning needs assessment in your training budget

In well-designed projects, training components should include three-parts:  (1) learning needs assessment; (2) training; and (3) impact or effectiveness assessment. Often, however, these assessments are not included in the training or project budget at all. Costs for surveys can be relatively modest, but still yield useful results if well designed. Further, there are several efficient ways of both collecting data and analysing the results. In addition to the questionnaire approach used in Belarus, we have conducted focus groups (e.g., in Romania on Energy Poverty) and have used electronic surveys for large audiences. The approach should be chosen and scaled to your situation.

Training Needs Assessment results frequently have implications on the cost-effectiveness of the subsequent training. For example, in many of our projects, these assessments help to narrow the target audience thereby increasing the efficiency – and effectiveness – of training resources. In Belarus, one respondent mentioned the need for a glossary of terms to cover words like “benchmarking” and “targeting” (where an English-Russian dictionary would not shed any light on these terms for these purposes!). Providing a simple glossary to participants at the beginning of a seminar is an easy and inexpensive way to save time while improving the comprehension of the group.

Tip #4: Capture the level of knowledge before and after training

Rating the level of knowledge on potential training subjects is extremely useful when trying to understand your audience’s needs and interests. We suggest getting respondents to rate possible training subjects starting with ratings of “this is not relevant for me” to “this is something new to me”, right up to “I have a good understanding of this” and “I already regularly use this”.

After the training, the same rating system could be used to determine the overall training effectiveness.

Training Needs Assessments offer many opportunities to improve your training initiatives. The result may be a change in focus or quantity of training provided, changes to how the target audience is engaged, or possibly the realization that no training is needed at all! Overall, such assessments reward us with a greater understanding of real training requirements and ultimately a richer training experience for all involved.

Contact us to discuss how Training Needs Assessments could benefit your initiative.