Identifying learning and development (L&D) needs involves the assessment of employee capabilities alongside an understanding of current or anticipated gaps in knowledge or skills. This analysis can be conducted at the individual, team or organisational level. In any case, the outcomes can identify the appropriate learning provisions required to enable sustained business performance and should be closely aligned to the overall organisation strategy.

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

CIPD viewpoint

Clear and systematic identification of learning and development needs is a key aspect of 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 people professionals must act quickly to deliver a learning needs analysis when required. 

The process demands an appropriate mapping of organisational needs linking the learning to the desired business outcomes. Using our ‘RAM’ model – focusing on Relevance, Alignment and Measurement – is one way to make sure that the learning needs analysis does not become too inward-focused but maintains a clear focus on business improvement. 

As with other L&D areas, we should also be aware of the increasing use of talent analysis approaches which, if used systematically, can provide new data and insight for identifying the learning needs of individuals and organisations.

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 assessment of prevailing levels of skills, attitudes and knowledge, and on any current or anticipated gaps. This assessment can use formal and/ or informal methods. Such an analysis will enable decisions about what learning provisions are needed at individual, team or organisational level. These gaps should be interpreted and prioritised in connection with the wider organisational strategy.

Implementing a formal learning needs analysis (LNA) - also sometimes known by alternative terms such as training needs analysis (TNA) or training and learning needs analysis (TLNA) - 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 is 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.

Such a process needs to flow from business strategy, and its aim is to produce a plan for the organisation to make sure there is sufficient capability to sustain current and future business performance. It is also vital to consider statutory and compliance requirements.

Links with learning and development strategy

Creating an effective learning and development strategy is critical in ensuring that the approach to L&D 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'.

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.

Depending on the circumstances, a learning needs analysis may for a specific aspect (such as an organisational or project-based skills audit), an ongoing operation (for example as part of an organisation review process) or a combination of approaches. However if L&D is aligned to the organisational strategy then this will be an iterative process 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. We’ve developed an approach we call ‘RAM’ (Relevance, Alignment, Measurement) based on our research with the University of Portsmouth.

The RAM approach helps to focus the analysis on the key business and organisational outcomes in the following ways:

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

  • Alignment: if the plan is to deliver a changed L&D offer, 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 the function can help them achieve it. It's also important to ensure that L&D is aligned to other key strategies such as reward, organisational development, engagement and other aspects of the management of human resources. Alignment with organisational strategy and its marketing and finance strategies and other dimensions of corporate strategy gives focus, purpose and relevance to L&D.

  • Measurement: it's also critical that the HR and L&D function measures and evaluates the interventions effectively and consistently. It may be helpful to use a mix of evaluation methods such as return on investment (ROI) and broader measures of expected change and improvement such as return on expectation, and to link L&D outcomes to key performance indicators (KPIs).

Find out more on measuring and evaluating learning outcomes.

Capability analysis

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

  • 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.

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 often 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.

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. and REA, A. (2016) Learning and development practice in the workplace. 3rd ed. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

ROBSON, F. (2009) Learning needs analysis. CIPD Toolkit. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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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