How to find out the learning needs

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Written by Paul Matthews on 13 November 2013

"Hi, I am new into an L&D role and I want to find out ways to identify the learning needs in my organisation. Are there specific tools or questionnaires I could use that you would recommend?"

This was posted in an online forum, and on first glance may seem to be a reasonable request. Indeed, many of the responses that people posted were to recommend competency frameworks and questionnaires to gauge competence in various areas, and how to carry out a training needs analysis

This bothered me.

Although there is not much information in the original question about the real situation in the organisation, to me, there is one huge assumption that is sending this person off on a potential wild goose chase. The assumption is that because their job title says "Learning", then learning is what they must deliver. In my discussions with many people in L&D I find that this approach, or paradigm if you would prefer to call it that, is remarkably common.

I think this is wrong.

The operations people in the organisation don't actually care about learning. What they care about is execution.

Let's back up a couple of steps and look at it this way.

The first step in identifying what the learning needs are is to understand what you need them for. By that I mean, why does someone in your organisation have a need to learn something? The only reason is that they are not currently able to step up to the job they are being asked to do in order to fulfil the vision and strategy set by the board, or they are unable to do the job they will soon be asked to do as the strategy unfolds.

So what is the vision? What is the strategy? What capability needs to be in place to perform the strategy? What is the gap between what people are currently capable of doing, and what they need to be capable of doing?

If you find that an employee is not capable of doing the job they are given, you then need to figure out why that is the case. It is important to realise that if they can't do something, it may well not be because they don't know what to do, or how to do it. Maybe they won't do it, or maybe something stops them from doing it.

You need to speak with them and find out what the barriers are that are stopping them being capable in the moment at the point of work. You will find that in many cases the limitations on the employees' ability to do a job is not a result of the lack of knowledge or skills. Learning is not always the answer to performance issues. When was the last time that you tried to do something and failed to deliver, not because you didn't know how, but because something else stopped you delivering what was asked for?

Don't ask people what they know. Find out what they can do!

And not just what they can do in general, which is their competence level, but what they can do specifically in their work context, which is their capability. Competence is only one of many factors that are at play to decide whether someone is capable at the point of work.

So the first port of call is to learn a lot more about the vision and strategy, and what the people who developed it think needs to be in place to make it happen. You need to speak the language of the boardroom so they know that what you want to do in L&D is directly supporting their strategy. That way you will be delivering employees to them who can do the job.

Remember, the operations people care about execution. They care whether an employee can do the job they are given at the time and place they are given it. They don't really care about learning; or rather they only care about learning insomuch as it is a factor that supports execution.

In my opinion, too many people in L&D focus on learning, and do not have enough focus on execution.

About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He can be contacted via

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