Tip #481: Training Needs Assessments Shape Respondents’ Answers and Expectations

“I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.   Arthur C. Clarke

I recently reviewed thirty training needs assessment questionnaires completed by the owners and management staff of nine private medical training institutions (PMTIs) in Zambia.

The training needs assessment questionnaire was very extensive, asking the respondents to rate themselves on a broad range of business management competencies in the areas of: financial management, business management, operations management, academic management, and stakeholder management.

We wanted to give them a comprehensive selection, so we listed as many business management competencies as possible. We also wanted to raise their consciousness regarding the knowledge and skills critical to successful business management.

The respondents rated themselves twice: first, to indicate their self-described degree of skill in each competency, and second, to indicate how important mastery of that competency is to the successful performance of their business management responsibilities.

When asked to identify any additional business management skills areas, not one respondent had anything to add.

They were also asked to list five business management areas in order of priority in which they would like to receive training and professional development. Every single topic they listed (with one exception) was drawn from the competencies identified in the questionnaire.

A cynic might conclude that the 10-page landscape-format questionnaire probably so overwhelmed the respondents that they had no energy or incentive to identify anything more. However, they had no difficulty with filling in page 9 with the numerous challenges they face in the daily leadership of their PMTIs.

So, their failure to list additional management skill areas on page 7 or additional management training topics on page 8 cannot be attributed to the fact that they ran out of steam.

No, I think there is another more likely explanation.

I think that the questions we asked definitely influenced and narrowed their focus. It is as if our questions defined the limits of the universe of possible business management skills- and the respondents unconsciously accepted those boundaries.

As I draft the lesson plans for the eight training days that will result from this needs assessment, something else is very clear to me. The questions we asked also raised and shaped their expectations about the training. We asked them to identify the business management competencies that were important to them. As a result, it is natural for them to assume that we will provide training to help them develop or strengthen those competencies.

Now we find ourselves in a Catch-22 situation. Were we to satisfy all or even a majority of the training needs they identified, the PMTI owners and management staff would need to devote weeks and weeks to training. Neither they nor we have the luxury of that amount of time.

We raised their expectations, but we cannot satisfy them all. Our only option is to try to cull the most pressing shared training needs from their questionnaire responses and design training to meet those needs.

Hopefully, the PMTI owners and management staff will seek out and locate other training opportunities that will fill in the gaps.

My question to you is: how could we have designed our needs assessment questionnaire so that we would have avoided these problems?

May your learning be sweet.


Janis Taylor provided this answer:

1.      Test the questionnaire with a small but representative sample audience. Use the results to cull down the competencies by half.

2.      Make page one of the questionnaire include a statement that describes how the results will be used and set expectations. Something like this:

‘The results of this questionnaire will help the learning team focus our efforts as we prepare for your upcoming event. We appreciate your taking the time to thoughtfully complete this questionnaire.

Although every competency listed will not be covered in depth during the learning event, the team will make every effort to provide references to additional materials for personal study upon request.’

Of course this statement is only valid if the team has some references (books, websites, etc.)
compiled in advance for the competencies not covered in the training.

Am I hired?


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