Our most read blog in 2012 was ‘Learning needs analysis: some useful techniques’, and in a presentation at Learning Technologies in January 2013 I took the opportunity to look in more depth at how best to analyse and identify the learning needs of managers.

The presentation was a synthesis of three areas we have blogged on in the past, and here I want to link the ideas together in one place:

  1. The context and framework through which we analyse the learning needs of managers. I believe we often have a natural but unhelpful bias that impacts on how we look at the evidence of managers’ learning needs.
  2. Six techniques to undertake learning needs analysis.
  3. The evidence of three years of search data by managers – what they are looking for?

Context and framework

analysing the learning needsIn ‘Uncovering the learning habits of leaders and managers’ we set out the findings of our latest research on how managers learn. The key thing about this was how our research differed from other research into effectiveness and how this impacts on the context through which we consider the analysis of learning needs. If you ask L&D professionals ‘What are the most effective learning practices?’ the answer is, perhaps not surprisingly, ‘in-house development programmes’.

However, if you reframe the question and ask managers themselves the answers are much more weighted towards a strong preference for ‘informal’ learning methods, with support from peers, senior managers and internal experts cited particularly strongly.

So there would appear to be a natural in-built L&D bias towards in-house courses and, to be fair, the data from managers does say that they have a place, but they are certainly not the only answer and, for the majority of the leaders and managers, the preferred way of learning.

Reframing the question to one that is more focused on the performance outcome is also important. Ask yourself, ‘How do you like to learn?’ and then, ‘When were you last faced with an unfamiliar challenge, what did you do?’ Did you answer the questions differently? And if for the second question you said you Googled or asked a colleague, then that’s a very typical response.

Asking questions like this help to identify the real performance gap and, as Julie Dirksen sets out in in her wonderful book ‘Design for How People Learn’ (Jess wrote a series of blogs on the book when we covered it in our book club), it is the role of the L&D professional to establish if the performance gap is a:

design for how people learn

  1. knowledge gap
  2. skills gap
  3. motivation gap
  4. environmental gap
  5. communication gap

If it’s a knowledge gap you will be able to equip the manager with the information they require and they will be able to accomplish the task. It is a simple case of providing the right information, except of course it is seldom just the information that is needed. More often than not it is a skill that needs practice. Ask yourself if it is reasonable to think someone can only be proficient with practice, and if the answer is yes, then it is a skills gap and time and space for practice is required.

The other gaps are more to do with organisational issues and it may be that the performance gap doesn’t need a learning solution at all.

So I’m suggesting that before we try to understand the learning needs of managers we need to properly understand our own context for looking at the analysis and have a clear framework to understand the performance gap and whether a learning need exists.

Only once this context and framework is clearly in place can you properly explore the six techniques suggested for undertaking learning analysis.

In terms of the search data a new blog will follow soon with an update to ‘Needle in the Search Haystack: Identifying Managers’ Learning Needs’ but for the moment here is the Wordle for the search terms for 2013.

Wordle of managers search terms 2012.
Wordle of managers search terms 2012.

Finally, the real skill of the L&D professional is in their ability to interpret the data and this takes skill and the use of a number of the techniques suggested. As an example of how this can differ, the data for the Wordle suggests ‘difficult conversations’ is fairly far down our list of importance (it’s at number 20) but in the survey of learning needs, ‘having difficult conversations’ was listed by managers as the number one challenge.

So the analysis is not a strict science, but there is a lot of evidence there to help you understand the performance gap and learning needs of leaders and managers; you just need to be thoughtful about how you find the evidence and apply it.