Why You Should Never Skip the Needs Analysis Phase

Why you need to conduct eLearning needs analysis

It seems that, as the demand for eLearning continues to grow, the need for conducting Training Needs Analysis (TNA) continues to take a back seat through the course development process. To be fair, most Instructional Systems Design (ISD) professionals understand very well what needs analysis is all about. Yet, somehow, circumstances often compel many to ignore this very important step.

News Flash: Skipping TNA is a bad idea!

We’ll take a closer look at why that’s so; and we’ll also review some strategies to help stakeholders in eLearning projects – sponsors, SMEs, clients, supervisors understand why TNA is a very important phase.


An eLearning course designed without a TNA is like planning a trip without a destination in mind. How will you know when you’ve arrived?  And needs analysis isn’t unique to eLearning. Project proponents must ground a project, regardless of size, budget or duration, around a need for it. Otherwise, once completed, how are stakeholders ever going to find out whether the project meets its objectives (i.e. needs)?

It is theoretically possible for ISD professionals to commence developing courses without performing formal needs analysis. However, the utility of such courses is typically short-lived. In the long-run, however, because the course isn’t addressing specific and identifiable needs, its existence becomes suspect. If you can’t prove the need for a course (through TNA), then why should sponsors and training managers continue to support it?


Left unto their own devices, most ISD professionals seldom recommend moving forward with a training program in the absence of a TNA. However, there are some situations that force them to ignore it, including:

  • Time constraints: In a crunch, there’s always the temptation to “get the ball rolling” to show clients and sponsors that “the project has kicked off!”. This situation assumes that it’s better to just do IT, than to first understand what the needs around IT are
  • Budgetary constraints: Most eLearning projects depend on funding controlled by non-ISD professionals. To cut costs, investors will usually provide the development team with what they believe the training needs This situation assumes that there’s no need to “waste money” doing a TNA when the needs are known – they just want someone (Instructional Designers) to build the course around their presumed needs. As a result, the ISD team jumps right into the design phase
  • Lack of understanding: Sometimes, omitting a TNA is a combination of ISD professional’s lack of experience, as well as a misunderstanding of what it is by SMEs, supervisory staff and clients. This lack of understanding results in omitting the TNA phase.

Regardless of what the reasons are, is it justified to skip performing a TNA altogether? The answer is a resounding NO! So, what are the options available to ISD professionals, and how should one go about conducting a TNA while dealing with these three constraints?


Whether you use the ADDIE model, SAM or Bloom’s Taxonomy to develop your eLearning courses, they each have a needs analysis phase – either specifically stated or implied. Given some of the constraints discussed earlier, however, here’s how you could expedite (and in some cases “water down”) a formal TNA, without impacting its key objectives.

A good foundation for any TNA is to quickly establish an organization’s needs for training, which organizational units (where employees perform specific roles and tasks) require it, and assess the training needs of individuals performing those roles/tasks/functions.

Needs analysis in eLearning


While there are a number of formal TNA approaches, the most popular model, called the McGhee and Thayer’s Three-Level Analysis, uses that 3-level approach to verify and validate training needs. When pressed for time, ISD professionals could adapt the McGhee-Thayer approach to perform a needs analysis. The Australian National Training Authority’s 4-step TNA is based on this principle.

eLearning needs analysis steps

The above process allows you to gather training needs in “sufficient detail” and document them in “appropriate format”. So, rather than being bogged down by the process, procedure, templates, and forms (which serve an important purpose in formal TNA approaches), the 4-step approach empowers time-and-resource-strapped practitioners with the flexibility to quickly and effectively perform a TNA.

Here are three additional points to consider when performing fast track TNA:

1.      As part of a formal TNA, many ISD professionals prefer interviewing employees, supervisors, SMEs, and managers first-hand, to get a sense of their jobs, roles, and functions. When time is of essence, skip the face-to-face sessions and rely on HR documentation to glean this vital information

2.      Need analysis meetings chew up a lot of project time. So, consider sending out your needs analysis questions in email form so stakeholders can provide quick responses

3.      Instead of conducting a ground-up TNA, where available, leverage existing needs analysis statements; do a quick validation of the main assumptions, and then only focus on updating major needs gaps

The 4-step approach discussed (in the flow chart) above doesn’t encourage completely doing away with TNA. However, when personalized appropriately, it can lead to conducting a high-quality TNA with limited resources and within a relatively shorter (compared to formal TNA approaches) duration.


One of the most difficult tasks that ISD professionals face is convincing stakeholders – be they SMEs, clients, supervisors or business leaders – that TNA is important. That’s because of the dual Time and Budgetary constraints discussed earlier, and complicated by lack of understanding of the importance of TNA.

So, how do you convince these stakeholders that TNA, albeit of the fact-track type, is important? Here are four strategies to consider:

1.      Leaders value training more than the analysis: Don’t make needs analysis the centerpiece of your pitch. Instead, portray it as a stepping stone towards organizational training goals

2.      Be prepared to give stakeholders what they want: Most need concrete assurances that the training you’ll propose (design, develop and implement) will produce results. Work with SMEs and supervisors to demonstrate that, once you identify appropriate training needs, the results they seek will follow

3.      Arm yourself with relatable use cases:  In a manufacturing setting, for example, training on equipment repair and installation may not yield the same results for shop floor personnel as training them on machine operations. Using targeted use cases is the best way to underline why TNA is essential in making decisions about the most appropriate training programs

4.      Educate and compromise: SMEs typically see challenges (like training) from a different lens than instructional designers do. They (SMEs) often believe they know the exact training needs – which might not be an accurate conclusion. Be prepared to accept SME fact-based assumptions (because they are the experts in that field), but also educate them about making training assumptions without underlying analysts to back it

Getting stakeholder buy-in is a difficult task for eLearning training developers. That’s because two opposing factors – the need for a “quick fix” and the need to do it right – are at play. Using the four strategies outlined above could make that task, of getting buy-in, easier.

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