Reliable TNA in seven steps

Nigel Murphy offers a practical step-by-step guide to training needs analysis

We all know the value of a good training needs analysis (TNA), but when I asked some learning and development managers what they got from a TNA, I got varied responses.

“The last TNA I saw was nothing more than a list of training courses.”

“Our TNA gave me a really good view of how many people need training and on what, and this tells me what to put on our training calendar.”

“Our training provider spent weeks gathering a range of needs which we already knew, and it was nothing more than a sales pitch at the end of the day.”

“We were aware that our leadership teams were not getting the best out of their people, and the TNA revealed gaps in our leadership behaviours.”

“We decided to change our technology platform, and the TNA was an integral part in making sure we had the right skills to make our technology change effective.”

For some, it had been a good exercise, less so for others. How do you make sure your TNA is reliable, gives you the right information, and is useful to you?

In theory, the process for a TNA is simple:

  • Identify the types of skills, knowledge and behaviours people need to be effective and committed, then:
  • Assess the levels of skills, knowledge and behaviours that people have today, then:
  • Determine the levels people need to be at; today and in the future, and so:
  • Identify the gaps in skills and knowledge.

It all seems obvious? So how can you ensure a reliable approach that will produce what you need?

Step 1: Start by understanding the drivers behind a TNA

If you ask L&D, HR and business leaders why skill development is important, they will give you a look that says “isn’t it obvious?” This is what you need to probe before you start your TNA. It is obvious, but for different reasons, and these could guide the way you set up your TNA. Here are a few obvious reasons:

  • We need to ensure we remain competitive and efficient and therefore we need high levels of capability in the organisation.
  • The business plan and strategy guides where the business will go and we need people with the right skills, knowledge and behaviours to make this happen.
  • There are changes in technologies, markets and customers that will mean we need new or different capabilities.
  • Our workforce is changing globally and we need to ensure everyone has a common level of knowledge and understanding.
  • We simply have to become more effective because of compliance and regulation requirements.

Step 2: Agree the scope of the TNA

“Go and run a TNA and tell me what we need to do to make sure we retain a competitive edge.” Is one instruction I heard. This is an example of a driver for the TNA, and therefore the next stage is to agree the scope. TNA scope means: what needs are you looking at? There are several broad groups you could look at:

  1. Functional needs. These are the skills, knowledge and behaviours required to be effective in specific jobs. These will vary from job to job, and are best described as the technical competences of a job. For example, this could be project management, software engineering, finance or management.
  2. Personal needs. These are needs relevant to an individual’s ability to be effective as an employee. These vary from individual to individual, and would include abilities such as assertiveness, time management and communications skills and handling change.
  3. Organisational needs. In any organisation, there are often common learning and development needs that apply to everyone. Good examples of these would be the demonstration of organisational behaviours and values, performance management processes, cost-focus or safety focus.

You have to agree which level or levels you are looking at. This may mean restricting the scope of a TNA to specific groups. It is perfectly possible to include all three of these groups, but it will be more time consuming and more complex. Often, you only need to look at one or two of these. Of course, there needs to be reference to overall business strategy, but most of the time a full TNA is not required.

Step 3: Decide on the frame of the TNA

Frame in a TNA means the time frame. You have a few options:

  1. Current needs. These are immediate gaps that need to be met quickly in order to remain competitive and effective today.
  2. Future needs. These are skills, knowledge and abilities which you are going to need in future to move into new areas or take advantage of changes that are on the horizon.
  3. Historic needs. There may be some things people have always been poor at. There may be core skills that are weak, and without them, you cannot move on to higher order skill development. A good example would be the shift from transactional selling to consultancy selling. Without filling a product knowledge gap first, solution selling could be ineffective.

Again, it is possible to cover all three time frames; however, you may only need to frame your TNA against one or two of these.

Step 4: Confirm the objectives of the TNA

Once you have defined the scope and frame of the TNA, you can discuss precise objectives for the TNA. As an example, your TNA objectives could be expressed as:

“To identify the training needs in the customer service function roles that will enable customer service people to meet business targets today and over the next three years.”

As a grid, it would look like this:

Of course, you need some flexibility, because you may discover skills that have never been developed, and find you need to explore some historic needs.

Step 5: Decide on your methodology

The aim of the TNA is to gather evidence of current levels of capability, and compare to required levels, and then identify the gaps. [pullquote]You are often best to start by interviewing a few key stakeholders to get an overview of the current opinions[/pullquote]. From this, you need to develop some hypotheses to test out in a pilot survey (you will refine these later, but it gives you a good starting point). Good examples of these might be:

“The customer service function gets more calls about product XYZ than other products, and appears to lack full knowledge of product XYZ specifications when answering customer calls. Does this indicate a general lack of product knowledge?”

“The customer service function is very quick to answer all calls compared to target. Does this indicate effective call handling skills?”

Remember, opinion is not the same as evidence. When you gather evidence, include ways to validate it. Don’t be misled by the strong opinions of others. They may be right, but prove it! Try to include at least three different sources of data.

Select your sample audience, ensure it is representative. If you have three tiers of management, you will need two or three people in each level, and two or three in each area. Obviously, if you have two thousand people you will rely on questionnaires more than interviews.

How do you start to gather data? Let’s review our general principles; make sure you:

  • Gather evidence from different people and different sources
  • Develop hypotheses to test out. You will hear ‘stories’ that reveal needs. You will need to explore why, so develop questions to explore these
  • [pullquote]When you hear one story, look for ways to validate it from other sources. You may find the same evidence tells a different story from a different perspective[/pullquote]
  • Use a variety of methods collect to data. Try to get others involved so you don’t become the only source of interpretation
  • It takes longer to gather evidence than you think!

Here are some useful methods of data collection which are used in most TNAs:

  • Read strategic plans (business, marketing and leadership and people strategies) to tell you where the business is going. This will help you devise questions to ask people.
  • Create questionnaires. These will help you assess the current perceptions of skills, what skills will be needed and capability.
  • Interview employees at different levels. Use similar questions to explore, cross check and compare responses. These interviews could be focus groups or one-to-one.
  • Interview clients and customers. They can tell you their perceptions and real experiences of the organisation and parts of it. This will need careful management and a senior person may accompany you, however, this will only add to the importance of your work.
  • Ask about critical incidents. Find examples of when things were not going well, and what gaps this reveals in skills or knowledge.
  • Select a few people for diary studies. Ask them to keep logs of what they spend their time doing.
  • Gather sales data. Client retention, client conversion rates, sales pipeline lengths and the time to convert a sale are all useful indicators.
  • Read the business KPIs such as stock, work in progress, returns, defects, how often targets are met, and which targets.
  • Observations of interaction at work and with clients. (Observation is a skill you may need to develop and you will need an observation checklist).
  • Collate personal development plans and performance review data. It is useful to know what people think is a need, and if they have done anything about it, and how many needs seem to disappear during the review cycle.
  • Look into HR data on attendance, sickness, grievances, overtime, attrition, pipeline levels; these can all be useful.

Clearly you do not need to gather everything about everything. Remember your focus and frame. Keep creating hypotheses to test out. You will find this is much an art as a science.

Step 6: Analyse the data

Once you have gathered your data, you will need to go fishing! You have a pool of data and you need to find the training needs. This is where you can organise by scope and frame.

Put all your data on the office floor and begin to identify the key messages. If you have a competency framework, this is helpful. You can organise:

  • Firstly by functional, organisational, or individual themes
  • Then by current or future time-scales, or both
  • Then in skill, knowledge or competency clusters which show current levels and required levels.

This gives you a way of organising your data. You will find that a number of key needs begin to appear from your ongoing hypotheses as well as from the patterns and relationships in the data in front of you. As you study all the data, you will see common trends, patterns and themes appearing in the interview notes, questionnaires, secondary business reports and figures. As a rule, if you have three different sources of evidence, you will have a definite need.

Step 7: Produce your TNA report

Your report can adopt a standard business or research report structure and you will have a significant recommendations section:

  1. Executive summary
  2. Objectives and Scope (focus and frame)
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings and Analysis
  5. Recommendations
  6. Conclusion and next steps.

Strictly speaking, your TNA is an analysis and recommendations of needs. Solutions are the next phase. However, as you prepare your report you will have not only training needs, but other business and leadership related comments. For example, you may discover issues about how systems or processes are performing while you investigate human performance. These have to be handled sensitively and may not directly relate to training needs. One option is to leave these out, however, a good TNA will separate these into a confidential report for the main sponsor. This report is an ‘Associated Issues’ report and is important. This could typically include:

  • Perspectives on organisational leadership and views on leadership culture
  • Efficiencies and technological agility
  • Cultural and engagement aspects.

There we have it, a structured TNA! Few people will do a TNA every year so, for most, it is a skill infrequently practiced. However, if you adopt a structured approach, with a good range of data, and spend time analysing your data, you will get an accurate report. Arrange a meeting and talk through your report, do not simply hand it in. Expect to be questioned and challenged. However, you will have the data and evidence to support your recommendations.


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