Conducting Effective Needs Assessments

Conducting Effective Needs Assessments

By Gina Abudi
First, let’s define a “needs assessment.” According to Wikipedia, a “needs assessment is a process for determining and addressing needs, or “gaps” between current conditions and desired conditions, often used for improvement projects in education/training.”
A needs assessment should address the following:

* Knowledge: What an individual needs to know in order to do his/her job.
* Skills: What an individual must know in order to perform the day-to-day tasks associated with his/her job.
* Competencies: The combination of knowledge, skills, attitude, values and motivations an individual must have in order to be successful in his/her job.

Step I to Conducting an Effective Needs Assessment: Data Gathering
Prior to conducting a needs assessment of individuals within the organization, you need to determine the types of skills, knowledge and competencies required – what do the employees of the organization – from junior levels to senior levels – require to be effective in their roles within the organization? Keep in mind the company’s culture when determining the skills, knowledge and competencies required.

For example if the organization is a flat organization with much autonomy given employees, it would be difficult for an individual who prefers a hierarchical, very structured organization to be effective within the organization.

Likewise, an individual who is used to significant autonomy to do his/her job would find it difficult to have to frequently report to his/her manager.

There are a variety of ways to gather data to get the information you need, including:

* Interviews with employees
* Online questionnaires/surveys
* Data from human resources and/or business units

All of these will be discussed in further detail.

It is recommended that for interviews and online questionnaires you set up a pilot group to test your questions to ensure that you are getting the information you need. By pilot testing, you can ensure that the questions are read and understood the same way by each individual. The last thing you need is to get results back that are useless because each individual interpreted a question differently and, therefore, responded differently based on his/her interpretation of the question.

Begin to gather data by looking at the best performing individuals within the organization and determine what they have in a combination of skills, knowledge and competencies that makes them successful. These might be considered your high potential employees – individuals who are good candidates for senior leadership roles in the future. But don’t just consider the “high potentials,” look at individuals who are great at what they do, even if they might not be good candidates to lead the organization in the future.


Interviews can be done in small groups (also called focus groups) or one-on-one, and either in person or via the telephone. I have used all of these options successfully, depending on the situation and the purpose of the interview. The purpose behind interviewing is to obtain data from a variety of sources on:

* What skills and knowledge individuals must have to be effective within the organization overall and to be effective in the organization in specific roles
* What are some of the challenges that individuals face on a daily basis in their roles
* What are the characteristics and behaviors of those considered the best (most effective, versatile, etc.) in their roles
* What are the characteristics and behaviors of those who are not considered effective in their roles
* What are the long term objectives of the organization – where will the organization be in 3 years, 5 years, 10 years etc. – and what type of individual is needed to get it there

In interviews, you are able to follow up with additional questions based on the responses that you are receiving from those being interviewed. This will help you gather even further data and refine the data you have.

Online questionnaires

I have used online questionnaires both stand-alone (in place of interviews) and also as a pre-data gathering tool prior to the interview. In the case of using the online questionnaire to gather data prior to the interview, I will then use the interview as a follow up to the questionnaire to probe a bit deeper on the responses.

Your questions may be a combination of multiple choice, open ended, yes/no, or a likert (ranking) scale. Choose what makes the most sense based upon the data you are trying to gather and the decisions you are trying to make.

There are a variety of tools at low cost for producing questionnaires that will also roll up the results for you. These include SurveyMonkey and QuestionMark, along with others. There are also a few free online survey tools. Just be sure any tool you use will provide you the results in the format required and enable you to save your data for future use.

Data from Human Resources and/or Business Units

The human resources department and/or business units can provide you a variety of information to supplement your data gathering, including:

* Retention rate of staff – including background information on those who have left the organization
* Promotions – including background information on those who have been promoted
* Roles and responsibilities/job descriptions of various staff positions
* Company mission statement and vision
* Long term strategic goals

This data is best used in conjunction with other data gathering methods, such as the interviews and questionnaires described above. Use this data to look for trends – for example, if the long term strategic goals of the organization include acquisitions of other organizations, and no one on the management staff currently has a background in this area, you would want to ensure that future managers have such skills in managing acquisitions.

In this situation, you would want to determine what skills are required for someone to be effective at acquiring companies, managing those companies and integrating them into the organization. In addition to in-house data, you may choose to review research, industry data, and other sources for information to help you reach your end goal.

Remember that this type of data gathering can often be sensitive within organizations, so you want to be clear what you are looking for and why and how it will be used. Maintain confidentiality at all times.

Use all of this data to assess individuals toward the development of a comprehensive competency model to be used organization-wide.

Conducting a Competency-Based Assessment

To conduct a competency-based assessment, use the data from the data gathering session(s) to develop a competency model to assess against.
To begin, let’s define a competency model. In The Art and Science of Competency Models, a competency model is defined as “the particular combination of knowledge, skills and characteristics and is used as a human resource tool for selection, training and development, appraisal, and succession planning.”

The outcome of the competency-based assessment might be:

* An understanding of where each individual is currently in their development (gap analysis)
* A description of the knowledge, skills and behaviors required for various roles within the organization based on the evaluation of individuals who are highly regarded and high performing – meaning they exceed expectations on a regular basis and achieve high ratings on performance reviews
o Create a competency model for future assessments
* The creation of a variety of training programs to help individuals achieve their professional goals and the goals of the organization
* The creation of career paths for various roles within the organization – from junior to more senior
* The creation of interview plans and questions for recruiting and hiring
* The creation and/or enhancement of a performance review process

The following approach might be taken:

* Interview the managers of the best employees to understand what makes the individual valuable within that department and to the organization
* Interview these best employees and high potential employees to understand their background, education level, skills brought into the organization from other companies and skills developed while at the organization

Other questions you might ask the employees include, for example,

* What has enabled you to be successful at your job?
* What barriers have you encountered and how have you moved past those barriers?
* What support have you received?
* What have you done of your own volition to be successful?
* Do you have a mentor or coach?
* What skills do you believe make you successful at the job?
* What additional skills do you need in your opinion?
* What are your professional goals?

Use this approach to develop the comprehensive competency models for the various roles to help individuals move up through the organization into future leadership roles. Once developed, this competency model and assessments will be used to assess all other individuals within the organization.

For example, the organization may require that leaders have the following strengths (see bulleted list below). You would want to ensure that your competency model covers these skills and that assessments assessed the individual against these skills.

* Coaching others
* Influencing skills
* Collaborative decision making and problem solving
* Team leadership
* Communication
* Long term vision/goal setting
* Financial management
* Strategic planning
* Strategic thinking
* Risk taking
* Business acumen
* Change management
* Presentation skills
* Negotiating and conflict management

The competency models may be distinct depending on the specific department/function, and should be focused on the critical jobs and roles needed at each level. For example, a future executive in sales may require in-depth knowledge of the competitive environment and product knowledge; while an HR executive may require expertise in interviewing and selection skills and in-depth knowledge of employment laws. New hires within any department may require the ability to work within a team environment.

It is important to look at the skills of current leaders to determine their strengths and development areas. What skills are needed that may not exist within the organization currently in order for the organization to grow, prosper and compete in a global marketplace? How might you groom more junior employees to ensure they have the necessary skills to lead the organization at a future date?

Individuals would be assessed against the competency model developed for their particular role (or a future role) to determine their strengths and development areas. Those should be mapped against the expectations set for each role within the organization to determine the skills gaps.

You wouldn’t expect every individual to be performing now at the highest level (they wouldn’t rank as “experts”); but you would want an idea where they are performing now so you can develop a plan to get them to where they need to be in order to eventually take on a more senior leadership role within the organization.

The goal is to develop a long-term strategic management training program to ensure you have the bench strength when your current leaders retire or move on to other organizations. Your competency model will help you not only assess your current employees, but also help you identify employees with high potential within the organization.

The outcome of your competency based assessment should be:

* A competency model for the various key roles within the organization
* Tools to assess against that competency model in the future
o Questionnaires/surveys
o Interviewing tools
o Assessments
o 360 feedback tools
* Development of detailed job descriptions for each role that includes the skills, behaviors and competencies required to perform successfully in that role

Remember to revisit and revise your work on a set schedule – maybe annually or whatever time frame works best for the organization. If your organization has constant change due to mergers and acquisitions, frequent new product introductions, etc., you may want to set a more frequent schedule for reviewing and revising your competency models and needs assessments processes and procedures.

As the organization grows and develops, new competencies are required to ensure success – make sure you capture that information and re-develop/update your model and assessments appropriately.ResourcesThe Art and Science of Competency Models: Pinpointing Critical Success Factors in Organizations, Authors: Anntoinette Lucia, Richard Lepsinger; Publisher: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 1999A Practical Guide to Needs Assessment, Author: Kavita Gupta; Publisher: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 1999

Gina Abudi has over 15 years consulting experience in a variety of areas, including project management, process management, leadership development, succession planning, high potential programs, talent optimization and development of strategic learning and development programs. She is the president at Abudi Consulting Group, LLC ( ) in Amherst, NH. Gina blogs at

She has been honored by PMI® as one of the Power 50 and has served as Chair of PMI®s Global Corporate Council Leadership Team. Gina is currently President-Elect of PMI® Massachusetts Bay Chapter Board of Directors. She has presented at various conferences on topics ranging from general management and leadership topics to project management. Gina received her MBA from Simmons Graduate School of Management.

Copyright © 2009 – 2011 Gina Abudi – All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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