Find Out What’s Wrong Before You Fix It

Almost every company knows that it must take an active part in training its workforce and in preparing employees for jobs, promotions and future changes. Certainly employees expect and even demand that a company provide educational opportunities throughout their working careers. The large number of courses, seminars and special training programs that are currently offered each year attest to the fact that we have accepted the idea of lifelong education. But one of the major problems confronting managers and human resource development departments is trying to decide who needs what kind of training, at what level and how much they need. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind who goes to a course, who does not, and what is actually studied, often doesn’t stand the light of day. All too often someone in a management position decides to send people to courses for all the wrong reasons.

Another common method of “planning” human resource development programs can be seen in large firms that truly believe that it is necessary and desirable to offer continual learning opportunities. However, the process of doing this has become routine and managers no longer pay attention to why they are sending people to courses. Employees are simply told “It’s your turn to take a course next month. Pick one of these three and take it.” Little thought is given to whether the course is good, pertinent or of interest to the firm or the employee. Trainers dislike having these people in the class. They are unwilling captives who are bored, resentful and poor learners.

The only acceptable approach to training is to determine your exact needs, who needs what kind of training and how much of it they actually require. Just stop and think for a minute. When a teacher is faced with a new class of students with varying levels of ability, knowledge, backgrounds and experience, he or she doesn’t simply start out assigning lessons by guesswork. Good teachers always give their pupils a test so they can determine who needs what and how much of it they should have. The same principle applies in the business world.

Assuming that this all make sense and you are prepared to do what we have suggested, the next question you will raise is, “But how do I find out what people need?” Fortunately there is a very simple answer: ask your employees what needs fixing. Notice that we didn’t say ask them what courses they want to take. If you do the latter, they will respond using the same error laden process that management may be using. Instead, find out what areas need improvement and what issues are creating problems for people.

There are several ways to accomplish this. First, you can simply ask people a number of questions in an attempt to collect useful information. The problem here is that you have to ask the right questions and the same ones to a representative sample of your people. You also have to hope that they will confide in you and be honest. A better approach is to use a survey, collect the responses and analyse the results. Here too, the problems of confidentiality, reliability and your skills in asking the correct question the right way, may work against you.

The best solution is to use an outside expert who can develop your survey. There are several good reasons for doing this. For one thing, people will often confide in an outsider when they won’t open up with someone from inside the organization. Equally important, the professional will be able to ask the right questions, accurately gather the most useful kinds of information and then be able to apply a sophisticated analysis to make sense of the results.

Needs assessment surveys can be used to measure attitudes and feelings, identify potential danger spots and uncover hidden problems that may become major issues if action is not taken. A survey can gather data on your communication system, adequacy of planning, quality of supervision, interpersonal relationships, job satisfaction, productivity and an unlimited number of other dimensions.

There are several things to look for if you decide to use a survey. Does it provide for complete confidentiality? Does it ask the kind of questions you want to have asked? Can it be customized to include questions that are of particular importance to your firm? Can the results be divided between departments, divisions, levels of management etc.? How long will it take to fill out?

People lose patience and interest with seemingly endless numbers of questions. Find one that takes only a few minutes to complete and consider using an online survey. They are fast and inexpensive. How long will it take to get the results? Anything more than two to three weeks is too long. What will the results look like when you get them? Will there be graphs, charts or diagrams to help you interpret the data?

There are two cautions you must keep in mind. One, beware of any vendor who claims to have comparative norms for your industry. Matching the feelings and attitudes of your workforce with the feelings and attitudes of some other group in another place, at another time, under different circumstances doesn’t mean a thing.

Last, but most important, never use a needs assessment survey unless you will do something as a result of the findings. Asking your people what is wrong and then ignoring their comments is worse than never having asked in the first place.

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