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TNA: Aim for the Moon


How can you make sure that management development is relevant and meets their needs? Graham O'Connell looks at how to conduct a TNA that will not only identify needs but will help build relationships and add credibility to the training department.

Needs Analysis is a vital and tricky process. They say if you aim for the moon and are one degree out you will miss it by 1,000 miles. It is the same with training; thought put in at the front end to properly target your efforts is rarely wasted. A strategy of not just relying on a questionnaire is a good one, especially if you are aiming to get information from managers. There are a number of things to consider in relation to TNA research overall, the questionnaire design in particular, and the interviews.

As with any research, the most important thing is to determine precisely what you are looking to achieve. I would suggest there are two main purposes and one implicit, but still important, spin off. The first purpose should be to establish each person’s learning needs (not just their wants, their perceived needs nor a list of courses they would like to go on). You might also want to find out about their collective needs as a group of directors, which might be slightly different. These needs should relate to their current role and challenges, their future capability requirements and their career aspirations.

Secondly, it is useful to find out about their learning preferences (eg reading, conferences, residential awaydays, elearning). Though I am not implying that you should pander exclusively to their preferences, sometimes it is helpful to stretch into new territory, especially if it is something that has been shown to work elsewhere (eg executive coaching, Action Learning).

A useful spin-off from a needs analysis is the relationship building element and the ownership that comes from listening to a manager's needs and then building a tailored, credible response.

First send out a questionnaire. This can be quite short as you are going to follow it up. If it is too long you might not get many returned. You could use a web-based questionnaire but they tend to be better for larger surveys. I’d suggest a home-made one but do make sure it looks professional – impressions count.

Follow one of two simple structures and then mirror that in your interviews:

The first structure is past, present, future. For example: What challenges have you faced in the last year that you wish you had been better equipped for? What additional skills or expertise do you need right now to help drive up your level of performance still further? Thinking of the future, what development might be of most benefit to help you address the strategic challenges ahead or to support you in your career?

The other structure might be personal, functional and corporate. For example: What aspects of your personal strengths do you wish to develop even further? What learning or development would most help you address the challenges or tasks you face in your job? What learning or development would help you most in your role as a strategic leader and, in turn, will help the organisation move forward?

Asking a few big, open questions will give you richer information than several closed questions. In the interview you can probe further. For example, if someone is looking to develop their leadership skills you will need to get under the skin of why and in what way. Also in the interview I would suggest you start with the things that drive their learning needs (eg operational problems, changes in strategic direction, concerns about leading or managing their business unit).

Don’t get into ‘which course do you want’, especially early on. The approach I recommend has two effects. Firstly, it gets them thinking and talking. The more they open up, the more you need to listen and, as a consequence, the more they will open up. The other effect is that you are more likely to get at a true diagnosis of needs rather than a wish list – you have to understand the problem before you can understand the solution.

Towards the end of the interview I might ask about how they see the needs of their colleagues (not named individuals but as a grouping of roles). I might also start to speculate about possible development or training options just to get a sounding board reaction of what might press their buttons and what might turn them off.

The questionnaire needs to look quick to complete and interesting. If you ask really challenging and thought-provoking questions you may be surprised that they will put more time and effort into it. Similarly I would ask for about 20 minutes per interview but I would allow much longer (ask the secretary not to book anything else until 40 minutes later and give yourself one hour so you can write up your notes immediately). Once they get going, and if you listen well and ask good questions, the time will fly and at 40 minutes you may even need to stop them.

It is important that you enter their world and don’t expect them to enter yours. Once you get them talking about their world, they will stay interested believe me, and, as a bonus, you are more likely to come over as credible.

Once you have completed your research you will need to make sense of it all. There will be some needs unique to individuals and some that are shared. For the former you might suggest options ranging from quick, cheap and easy (‘the best book on this topic is…’) to more in-depth, stretching options (‘the best qualification on this is…’).

Make sure you include some one-to-one options as for managers that could be most useful.You might consider some bespoke group learning events. Bear in mind it might be hard to get them all away at the same time and there may be some internal politics that could contaminate such an approach. A key decision is whether the options should be constrained by budget considerations or whether the potential benefits outweigh the cost, and so additional investment in their development would be the right course of action.

How often?
One final point, consider how often you may need to repeat this exercise. If it comes around fairly quickly (because of major role changes or turnover of people) it can be helpful to adopt a different style or approach. There are various models and tools around such as Pugh’s OD Matrix, Competency Analysis or a Balanced Scorecard approach. But the critical factor is always about getting good answers to the right questions.

Sadly Tom Boydell’s book is now out of print, but if you want a good, straightforward guide Learning Needs Analysis and Evaluation by Roland and Francis Bee (published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) is worth a look.


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