Clear, systematic ongoing identification of learning and development (L&D) needs is key in ensuring effective learning provision across an organisation. However, the process can be seen as a rigid, box-ticking one-time exercise unless it’s aligned with organisational requirements. The need for organisational agility means L&D professionals must act quickly to deliver a learning needs analysis when required

This factsheet examines the basics of identifying L&D needs, including how to carry out a capability analysis and suggests methods for collecting and making use of the data. It also provides insight for those in smaller organisations addressing their particular challenges in identifying learning and development needs.

The CIPD is at the heart of change happening across L&D, supporting practitioners in providing insights and resources. We are proud to be at the 'epicentre' of this changing world of L&D.

Identifying learning and development (L&D) needs is based on an assessing levels of skills, attitudes and knowledge, and on any current or anticipated gaps. This assessment can use formal and informal methods. Such an analysis will allow decisions about what learning is needed at individual, team or organisational level. These gaps should be interpreted and prioritised within the wider organisational strategy. Find out how specialist learning and development knowledge fits in our new Profession Map.

Implementing a formal learning needs analysis (LNA) is different to a training needs analysis (TNA). An LNA may be seen as a current or future health check on the skills, talent and capabilities of the organisation (or part of the organisation). It’s based on the systematic gathering of data about employees’ capabilities and organisational demands for skills, alongside an analysis of the implications of new and changed roles for changes in capability. A TNA is more of one-off event looking at the specific needs for a specific learning event.

The LNA process needs to flow from business strategy. Its aim is to produce a plan to make sure there is sufficient capability to sustain current and future business performance. It’s also vital to consider statutory and compliance requirements.

Links with learning and development strategy

Creating an effective learning and development strategy is critical to ensure the L&D approach aligns with business needs.

A clear analysis of L&D needs to inform such a strategy is important because:

  • Organisational performance depends on having the right people in the right place with the right skills at the right time.
  • Providing learning opportunities can help build organisational effectiveness as well as enabling staff to achieve personal and career goals which can increase employee engagement.
  • Having a clear idea of what needs to be learned and the outcomes that are expected provides a foundation for L&D professionals to evaluate effectiveness and demonstrate the impact of L&D to the organisation.
  • Well-planned learning is an effective retention strategy, particularly when linked into talent strategies. It is also useful in times of high attrition providing it's designed to capture in house knowledge well, therefore stopping knowledge 'walking out of the door'.

Hear more in our podcast on Aligning learning with business objectives.

Engaging with a variety of stakeholders, including subject matter experts, operational managers and the intended learner group, is vital and they need to be consulted with early in the process. This also continues when the results are communicated.

Levels of learning needs analysis

Analysis of learning and development needs can be done at a number of levels:

  • For the organisation as a whole - to analyse the amount and types of learning needed to ensure that all employees have the right capabilities to perform in line with the organisation’s strategy.

  • For a specific department, project or area of work - new projects and opportunities require new ways of working or reorganisation, while restructuring also necessitates changes in roles.

  • For individuals - linking their own personal learning and development needs to those of the business, often carried out as part of performance review. See our factsheets on performance management and performance appraisal for more information.

The relevant function (for example, L&D or HR) needs to ensure that analyses carried out at any of these three levels are integrated and not seen in isolation.

If L&D is aligned to the organisational strategy, then this will be an iterative process, where L&D teams meet regularly with stakeholders to gain insight to the organisational needs, and not seen as a single event.

The ‘RAM’ approach

While it’s critical that any assessment of learning needs should be careful and thorough, in today’s rapidly-changing business environment such a process also needs to be agile and readily responsive. Drawing on our research findings, we developed an approach to learning known as RAM (Relevance, Alignment, Measurement). It’s based on the need for

  • Relevance: How existing or planned learning provision will meet new opportunities and challenges for the business.

  • Alignment: If the plan is move to an integrated blended approach, it’s critical for HR and L&D to talk to key managers and other stakeholders about what they’re seeking to deliver and how to achieve it. Aligning with broader organisational strategy gives focus, purpose and relevance to L&D.

  • Measurement: HR and L&D teams effectively and consistently measure and evaluate their activities.

Find out more on measuring and evaluating learning outcomes.

Capability analysis

Knowing which jobs will be done now as well as those expected in future is the first step when reviewing skills needs. Keeping an open mind helps; nobody honestly knows what jobs will exist in the future, but being agile and prepared for them is important. Next, for each category of employees covered, consider the following questions:

  • Which capabilities will be required to carry out the job? (the person specification)
  • Which capabilities do existing employees possess? (a formal or informal skills analysis)
  • What are the gaps between existing capabilities and new/future requirements? (the learning specification)

L&D professionals often find it helpful to use a breakdown of capabilities into ‘knowledge, skills and attitude’ when analysing needs to make sure that no aspects are missed. For example, when looking at the competence requirements in a project manager:

  • Knowledge elements might cover the nature of the projects managed, techniques of project management and the system used to manage projects, plus being well-networked to find any knowledge gaps.

  • High levels of skill in dealing with other people, managing the project team and influencing important stakeholders would be expected.

  • Certain attitude requirements would be relevant, such as attention to detail together with drive or persistence to overcome obstacles and see the project through.

Competency frameworks can provide more detailed structures for looking at job requirements.

Gathering data on learning needs

After planning the extent and nature of the analysis, the next stage is to decide how the information can be collected. Potential methods include:

  • Interviews and/or focus groups with line managers or other key players - these will often be primary sources of information on plans, work organisation and changes, or will expand on the data available in the documentation.

  • Questionnaire-based or other surveys of managers, employees and their representatives. However it’s vital that time is spent considering the questions that are asked, the likely response and what is done with the responses.

  • Pre-existing online data, for example from management information systems or virtual learning environments.

  • Information on existing competence frameworks and analysis of levels of competence achieved.

  • Performance management and appraisal data captured both formally and informally.

  • Documentation – for example organisation wide business plans, objectives and new work standards, job descriptions and person specifications. This tends to be desk based and can support other methods.

The iterative approach means that one or more of these methods may be used at the same time.

Much of this data will be sensitive, particularly where individuals’ knowledge and skills gaps are exposed, so confidentiality must be respected. In addition, there are times when major change is planned that senior management wish to keep confidential. In these situations learning professionals may need to build relationships and persuade management that learning interventions could contribute to the success of the initiative.

Learning professionals may wish to take advantage of analytic approaches using 'big data' which can provide more insight. See our Talent analytics and big data research report.

Using the learning needs analysis results

Collating the information from the needs analysis will allow a number of outputs that can happen concurrently:

  • A report of overall learning needs for the organisation or department - to form the basis of an L&D strategy or form part of the business planning process.

  • Prioritising the learning needs identified - discussions with senior managers will provide guidance on where they think the gaps are most critical. Concentrating on learning outcomes is important.

  • Learning and development plans - once priorities and budgets are set, the L&D team will be able to set plans for learning interventions. These plans will prioritise content and methods or processes appropriate to meet the needs identified. Line managers will also have a clear idea of where they need to coach or develop skills in their teams.

  • Personal development plans - plans for individual learning, aligned with the resources available.

  • Is a formal intervention needed? - many organisations say they offer a 70:20:10 approach to learning. The needs analysis may support using job-related experiences (the 70%) or interactions with others (the 20%) rather than formal education events (the 10%).

See more on our learning methods factsheet.

All the outputs should be discussed and agreed with relevant stakeholders including senior managers, the learners and their line managers.

The formal process of LNA may seem best suited to larger organisations where dedicated L&D and HR functions exist to deliver learning. However, identifying learning needs which align learning provision with strategy and the delivery of business results applies to smaller organisations too. In such organisations, where people often fulfil multiple roles, it's useful to focus on:

  • closely consulting with business leaders on how any skills gaps can be identified and addressed

  • fully assessing the costs and benefits that apply for smaller businesses

  • exploring sources of funding/resourcing - government support may be available for smaller enterprises, for example around apprenticeships, while student projects can also provide short-term capability and skills

  • developing solutions that allow flexible learning or alternative forms of delivery – as smaller organisations often can't afford to have key staff absent on training courses during key working hours.

Books and reports

BEEVERS, K., REA, A. and HAYDEN, D. (2019) Learning and development practice in the workplace. 4th ed. London: CIPD and Kogan Page.

LANCASTER, A. (2019) Driving performance through learning. London: Kogan Page.

ROBSON, F. (2009) Learning needs analysis. CIPD Toolkit. London: CIPD.

PAGE-TICKELL, R. (2018) Learning and development: a practical introduction. 2nd ed. HR Fundamentals. London: CIPD and Kogan Page.

Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.

Journal articles

JOHNSON, B. (2017) Learning needs analyses often feature too little analysis. People Management (online). 8 April.

MURPHY, N. (2015) Reliable TNA in seven steps. Training Journal. January. pp29-32.

SHIPLEY, F. and GOLDEN, P. (2013) How to analyze and address your organization's learning needs. T+D. Vol 67, No 3, March. p29-31.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by David Hayden.

David Hayden

David HaydenL&D Consultant/Trainer

David is part of the CIPD’s L&D Content Team. He leads on the design and delivery of a number of L&D-focused products as well as keeping his practice up to date by facilitating events for a range of clients. David began his L&D career after taking responsibility for three Youth Trainees back in 1988 as an Operations Manager, and has since gone on to work in, and headed up, a number of corporate L&D teams and HR functions in distribution, retail, financial and public sector organisations. He completed his Masters degree specialising in CPD and was Chair of our South Yorkshire Branch for two years from 2012 before joining as an employee in 2014. David also has a background in 'lean' and has worked as a Lean Engineer in a number of manufacturing and food organisations. Passionate about learning and exploiting all aspects of CPD, David’s style is participative and inclusive.

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