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When needs must
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by Clive Shepherd
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In the stampede to introduce the magical 'e' element into organisational learning, most eyes are firmly fixed on the online delivery of learning materials. This is hardly surprising, because the focus of most training effort is on the provision of learning solutions, rather than the identification of situations where learning may actually be of benefit to the organisation. To avoid the danger of online learning becoming yet another solution looking for a problem, it might be wise to devote a little more attention to the identification of needs and the ways that technology may be able to make this process easier. In this article, Clive Shepherd takes a look at the possibilities for advances in the state of the art of training needs analysis afforded by online technology.

Contents
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The scope of online training
What needs analysis is

What it is not

Towards a more systematic needs analysis process

What's currently available

Some do-it-yourself solutions

The learning volcano

References

The scope of online training
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The near universality of the web browser interface, brought about by the application of Internet technology to organisational networks, brings with it opportunities that could revolutionise the way training departments interface with their customers. So far the emphasis has been placed on using the Internet and, more importantly, intranets as a way of improving accessibility to learning resources, a process facilitated by the rapid proliferation of off-the-shelf learning content. But networking technology has a lot more to offer than this - practically all aspects of the training and learning process can benefit to some degree by the judicious use of new online systems. And a long way before delivery in this process comes the identification of needs - the proper foundation of all our training efforts. So what can online technology offer the good ol' TNA?
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What needs analysis is
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We all know what needs analysis is, don't we? It's the process whereby we identify the gap between what the organisation requires in terms of job competencies and what the employees currently have to offer. When we know what the gap is, then we can look for learning resources that will help employees to increase their competencies and hopefully fill the gap. So, if the job of customer service representative requires a high level of competence in handling customer complaints, yet the current level of competence in that area is low, then we know we have a training need.

In fact, training needs can arise in other ways as well. Let's say you are going to be introducing a new computerised project management system, whereas right now your system is manual. The gap here is between future job requirements and current employee competencies. And needs can also arise when developing employees to take on greater responsibilities. If you're looking at a programme to help clerical workers to become supervisors, then your concern is the gap between the requirements of higher-level jobs and the current competencies of clerical workers.

So that's three types of need:

  • fulfilling current job requirements
  • fulfilling changing job requirements
  • fulfilling the needs of different, future jobs

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What it is not
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However, what passes for training needs analysis in some organisations bears no resemblance to this process. Too often it is the cafeteria system that operates: the training department places the courses it has to offer on the menu (including a three course meal for those really hungry for learning) and the punters pick those offerings that most tickle their appetite. And what do you do when the food's free and there's an abundance of choice - you gorge yourself. But did you really need the treacle pudding? No, but it looked irresistible.
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Towards a more systematic needs analysis process
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To systematise the process of training needs analysis requires the following:

  • a database of current job requirements, expressed as competencies
  • a way of defining future job requirements as well the above
  • a database of employees' capabilities, expressed as competencies (using exactly the same competency definitions as those used for jobs)
  • a way of assessing employee competencies using rating systems or tests
  • a way of comparing current or future job requirements with employee competencies to assess the level of training needs

Going beyond needs analysis for a moment, this system could be extended to help match learning needs with available resources. What would be needed would be an additional database of learning resources, indexed against the competency definitions.spacer
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What's currently available
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Knowledgesoft's Enterprise Workforce Performance software contains three elements:

  • competency management: allowing an organisation to define where it is going in terms of job roles, knowledge and skills
  • performance management: provides assessment tools to measure where an organisation actually is in terms of knowledge and skills
  • learning management: helps the organisation close the gaps by integrating classroom, web-based and on-job training

Knowledgesoft's customer list is impressive, including AT&T, IBM, Amoco, Novell, Prudential and Silicon Graphics.

Saba market the Saba Competency Manager as part of their suite of online learning management products. This includes facilities to:

  • define the competencies required to achieve your business goals, gathering input from high performers, whether they be your own employees, suppliers, partners or customers
  • track individual competencies, updated through self-assessment, learning completion, testing, multi-rater assessments or performance reviews
  • associate your learning offerings with the competencies they are designed to improve

Saba software is rapidly gaining prominence in the online learning world. Customers include Sun, Netscape and Wells Fargo Bank.

HR Pulse, from Nardoni Associates, is a multi-purpose career planning, succession planning and competency management tool. The software allows you to:

  • determine relevant information about people and jobs
  • capture competency-based performance appraisal information
  • use competencies as a convenient way of comparing people against each other and against the demands of the job
  • record succession decisions and display the results
  • generate a wide variety of printed and on-screen reports, graphs and statistical analyses

Nardoni boast a world-wide Fortune 500 customer base, but without giving names.


A screen from HR Pulse, Nardoni Associates, Inc.

The McMillan Partnership market a product called 360 Plus, which automates the process of gathering feedback on a 360 basis. As well as reducing the administrative burden, the package claims to increase response rates and improve security. The program can be operated on a stand-alone basis or can be linked to McMillan's personal development software, Catalyst.

Is this all? No, new systems are emerging all the time and the chances are that your existing human resource software is being enhanced to add new facilities in this area. With so many offerings coming available, it's important to get recommendations from customers who have implemented these systems and made them work. All systems look good on paper, but enterprise-wide solutions like these have to be extremely reliable, compatible with your other HR systems and backed up by the right sort of support. 
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Some do-it-yourself solutions
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If you find the idea of a large-scale, enterprise-wide solution daunting or out-of-reach then there's a lot you can do yourself at minimal cost. One of the by-products of web technology has been a proliferation of easy-to-use, low-cost tools with powerful capabilities. For example, let's say you wanted to survey a section of your target population to obtain self-ratings against a list of competencies. Using a tool like Microsoft FrontPage, which costs around 100, you can not only lay out the survey form in less than an hour, you can also save the results in a format that is readable by pretty-well any spreadsheet or database. What have you gained in the process?

  • the form is immediately accessible to your target population through their web browsers - you do not have to deliver paper-based forms in the mail
  • you can edit the form at any time, without having to post updates to each recipient individually
  • data is automatically saved in a format that you can manipulate - there is no need for the forms to be mailed back to you and entered manually into a software package

A simple web form like this can be created in minutes

If you wanted to go further and create a 360 questionnaire, bringing together ratings from supervisors, peers and subordinates, then you'd have to work harder to bring the results together in some meaningful form within your spreadsheet or database, but the web design work would be no more difficult.

If your organisation does not use a package like FrontPage, then you would need some help from the IT department to write a short script that saves the form results in the required format. However, this is a relatively simple job for an expert.

It is also possible to create your own assessments, containing a variety of question formats. Several dedicated assessment packages are available, of which the best-known is probably Question Mark. This software makes it easy for you to assemble banks of questions for access over your intranet or the Web and then process the results in a variety of report formats. New developments of Question Mark include a protocol that allows results to be communicated to training administration packages such as Registrar, Manager's Edge or Pathware, and a secure browser for more formal testing applications.


An extract from a sample Question Mark test on Word 97

If you don't want to use a dedicated assessment package, perhaps because you have special requirements for the layout of questions or the processing of results, then you can use a web-based training authoring tool. Perhaps the two most powerful and easy-to-use systems available at present are Macromedia Dreamweaver Attain and Asymetrix Toolbook. Both can be used to produce interactive lessons as well as assessments and can save results to the vendors' own training management systems (Pathware and Librarian respectively).spacer
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The learning volcano
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So with all these tools at our disposal, perhaps it could be just as useful - and almost as much fun - to concentrate a little of our online learning efforts on the needs analysis process. E-learning can take a back seat while we unashamedly introduce a new acronym into the vocabulary of training - ETNA. Let online training needs analysis erupt in your organisation.

[The author makes absolutely no apologies for bad jokes, so it is pointless complaining.]
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References
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Knowledgesoft: http://www.knowledgesoft.com
Saba: http://www.saba.com
HR Pulse: http://www.nardoni.com
360 Plus / Catalyst: http://www.mcmillanpartnership.ltd.uk/
Microsoft FrontPage: http://www.microsoft.com/frontpage
Question Mark: http://www.qmark.com
Macromedia Dreamweaver Attain / Pathware: http://www.macromedia.com
Asymetrix Toolbook / Librarian: http://www.asymetrix.com
 
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