According to the ATD, U.S. organizations spent over $100 billion on employee learning and development programs in 2010. That’s a lot of training! And a lot of resources spent. To make training worth the investment, you need to make sure your training program actually meets the needs of your audience. That’s why the first step for any effective online training program is an e-learning needs analysis.

An e-learning needs analysis answers this important question: is training the right solution for the problem at hand? If it’s not, you’ll want to know that before you start your e-learning project, not after you finish it. Taking the time now to plan your project with a needs analysis will ensure you’re creating something useful. So let’s take a closer look at how to create your own needs analysis.

To Train or Not to Train?

Whether you call it an e-learning needs analysis, a training needs analysis, or a training needs assessment, the objective is the same: to identify whether training needs exist, and what they are. The exercise examines a business deficiency and identifies all solutions, training and otherwise, that will solve the problem. Why look at both training and non-training solutions? Because sometimes you may find that a non-training solution is more effective than a training course. Other times, you may learn that the cost of living with the problem is far less than the cost of initiating training.

Let’s look at a training vs. non-training scenario:

Bob, the sales manager at XYZ company, wants to improve the call handling time for his telephone sales team. Currently, employees take an average of 7 minutes per call; Bob thinks they can be done in 5. So Bob tells you to design some e-learning that will improve his team’s average call time.

You dive into a needs assessment and observe the sales team in action. You see they’re doing the process just right, completing calls within the ideal time window. However, at the end of the process, the system is so slow that the sales team can’t complete the job until nearly the 7-minute mark.

Would training help here? No, because this example is a computer systems problem, not a “trainable human” problem. That’s why it’s important to start with an e-learning needs assessment—to tease out exactly the problem and the potential ways you can solve it—before you design and deliver an online training program.

Creating Your E-Learning Needs Analysis

Needs assessments come in many shapes and sizes, but they all start with data gathering. A good, basic framework to get the data you need comes from five very familiar prompts: why, who, how, what, and when. Let’s delve deeper into each of these, to illustrate the kind of information you should look for as you investigate.


Why do you think you need to create training? Dig into the details of the problem or deficiency, and look for evidence within the organization, in performance metrics, process breakdowns, customer feedback, employee observations, and the like. You should also look for upcoming changes. You won’t find evidence, of course, but you’ll know that if a new policy, process, or technology are in the works, people are going to need training.


Take a look at the people or departments involved in the problem or deficiency. Then look for other audiences that might benefit from the training, particularly if there are pending changes. These groups will comprise your target audience. Get to know them, their organizational functions, and how they do their jobs.


Brainstorm ways to correct the problem or fill the gap. Can training help, or are there better ways to address the issues? Consider creative options, especially those that make use of resources in place or are less disruptive to ongoing work. Think broadly—this is the time to look at all the different ways to resolve the problem.


For this you should look at what employees do in their jobs. What’s the best way for them to do their job or tasks? Do employees have the knowledge or skills to perform to the standard? Are there critical hazards employees need to avoid in their jobs? Take a look at policies and standard operating procedures, and find out how employees implement these in their jobs. Feedback from the front lines can help you identify discrepancies and gaps.


Training needs to be timed to maximize the number of people who benefit from it and minimize the burden on the organization’s business operations. How you deliver training—whether via online modules employees can complete on their own time, in-classroom training that requires them to gather at a certain time and place, or some other means—will play a role in determining when. For example, if training means pulling people off a production line and into a classroom, perhaps there’s a time during the day when production is slowest; people could do their training then. Get a sense of when employees are going to need the training relative to upcoming business operations, as well as when to deliver the training during their day-to-day work.

Once you’ve gathered your data, it’s time to analyze it. Approach this assessment with an open mind and look where the gaps and problems are, and how you might solve them. Understand employees’ current performance relative to requirements or standards they need to meet, and when they should meet them. Rely on your data to point you toward solutions to the problem. This is where you’ll see whether the problem is training-related or needs other solutions.

If you can’t find a performance gap after all, it may indicate that the desire for training is more of a want than a need. The key is to know that before you create an e-learning program, not afterward.

The outcome of a thoughtful e-learning needs analysis is a clear picture of the problem, solutions, and whether training will help. If it will, the evidence you discover in your investigation can help justify the cost of training to your organization, and serve as a launching point for your e-learning training course.

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Lucio P

It is true that generally, Subject Matter Experts do not lend themselves easily to the conduct of a Training Needs Analysis. Keep in mind that SMEs are not necessarily formal educators and thus, may not fully understand the need for such analysis. By the very nature of the TNA, the instructional designer must break down the subject matter down to its most basic elements. Being highly experienced members of the target population, SMEs often find such exercise boring and to some extent, pointless. However, their implication is essential for the accuracy and integrity of the results. Furthermore, their input will be required throughout the development process, and will become vital during the client acceptance phase. So it is worth taking the time to create a positive rapport with them... Expand

Mark McCoy