Analyzing Needs – Quick but not Dirty

Analysis of learning or training needs is a covert mental operation that sets the cognitive wheels flying in all directions looking for scattered dots to join, unjoin and rejoin till a new, coherent picture builds up inside. The trouble with such covert processes is that they are difficult to articulate (exactly what it is you are doing?), difficult to explain (why did do this?) and most difficult to teach (how did you do this?).

The fuzziness of this mental circus presents many difficulties.  For one, it becomes difficult to estimate how much time and what resources will be required to analyze the need. Another pointed difficulty of a largely abstract activity like analysis is the difficulty in collaborating with the business, the line, sponsor or with the learner for that matter.

How do you analyze a learning need and then talk about it or write it out it so everyone (non-ID and sometimes non-learning professionals) will understand? In this post we bring you the quick, but not dirty way of conducting a learning/training needs analysis based on Thomas Gilbert’s Behavioural Engineering Model or BEM. Using this model as a framework for analyzing learning or training needs makes:

  1. An abstract activity like analysis more tangible and concrete
  2. Possible the collaboration of other stakeholders in the system
  3. It easy to teach learning analysis to novice Instructional Designers

Gilbert introduced the BEM in his path-breaking book ‘Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance’ published in 1978. Gilbert posits that performance is a product of the organizational or external environment and an employee’s internal resources.

To do their jobs well, employees need support from their external environment. They need toknow what their job requires, they must have the necessary resources and they must be adequately incentivized. A good job performance also depends on the internal environment which includes the employees’ inner drive to perform, their capacity and their knowledge and skills.

Since the time the BEM was introduced in 1978, the model has been updated several times to suit the changing structure of organizations and industries. The figure below shows the ‘updated BEM’ as suggested by Roger Chevalier.

The Updated BEM by Roger Chevalier (info in a few cells modified by iDesign Skills)

The Updated BEM by Roger Chevalier (info in a few cells modified by iDesign Skills)

What this model says is when you have a performance problem; a training program may not be the only solution. The model urges you to analyze both external and internal factors. The model asserts that the performance equation is a sum of both internal and external factors. And this is how the BEM serves as the perfect diagnostic tool for analyzing a performance problem in an organization – for an individual or for a team. And it also concretizes the otherwise abstract mental operation of needs analysis. Here’s how.

We are pre-disposed to concluding that a performance shortfall is the result of ‘lack of knowledge’. Like in the Prima Worth scenario the Delivery Head finds that Project Managers (PMs) do not provide informal feedback. He assumes two things here – one that the need is correct and two – this need can only be fulfilled by training. After a Needs Identification process, if indeed it is found that PMs do not provide day-to-day informal feedback, it is very likely that a half-day training program on informal feedback will be organized. The training program will hit the nail on the head only if the reason for PMs’ performance shortfall is ‘lack of knowledge’ about informal feedback. If the shortfall is due to a lack of motive or lack of information, the training program is not likely to do any good.

The BEM has the potential to save the day by putting itself as a diagnostic tool between verifying a need and proposing  a (most often a training) solution. After verifying the need (using the Questions Grid and expressing it in the 4W format) this need must undergo cause analysis to determine the ‘why’ PMs do not provide informal feedback.

It is possible that PMs’ performance shortfall is a lack of motives (internal factor 4), incentives (external factor 3) or simply are not aware that informal feedback is a part of their role (external factor 1)? Having them undergo training would be an off-the-mark solution.

To enable this analysis, Gilbert’s BEM comes with a questionnaire called the PROBE or Profiling Behaviour Questionnaire. This questionnaire provides a set of generic questions for each factor which can be customized according to context.

The process of identifying and analyzing learning needs then can be summarized as:

Step 1: Decide the information you want to dig up through the NI exercise. Do your best to put it down as a NI goal statement.

Step 2: Your goal statement of step 1 will help you determine the roles you need to interview. This is a good time and place to decide the sample size of your respondents.

Step 3: For each role you will interview, use the Questions Grid to plan and phrase your questions appropriately.

Step 4: Execute your plan. Record responses. Make sure you do not record an interpretation of the responses.

Step 5: Publish your findings. Express your findings in clear unambiguous terms. A format we find useful in expressing a need is the 4W Format. W – who, W – what, W – when, W – why.

Step 6: Use the updated BEM to determine ‘Why’; the cause of the need.

The BEM is simple enough to understand intuitively and deep enough for a meaningful analysis. This quality of the BEM lends it a great deal of credibility among clients who otherwise are skeptical of an analysis on a project. It has helped us to have conversations about needs with stakeholders in projects. The BEM is really a boon that has made analysis a front-end, tangible activity for us at iDesign Skills.

This series on foundations of ID continues with focus on another type of analysis. That’s for next week. Until then…



1. Handbook of Human Performance Technology, 3rd Edition, Pfeiffer