How to perform an effective eLearning needs analysis

A needs analysis is vital at the outset of any eLearning development project in order to validate the justification for the project, to set the expectations for the outcomes of the project, and identify the current performance level of the target audience.

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A needs analysis is vital at the outset of any eLearning development project in order to validate the justification for the project, to set the expectations for the outcomes of the project, and to identify the current performance level of the target audience. 

Any successful best practice eLearning project must start with a clear learning objective, and in order to articulate this clearly and effectively, an elearning needs analysis needs to be performed. In general, the time and effort you put into understanding the needs of your audience upfront will pay back tenfold when it comes to the quality and effectiveness of the final eLearning product. A thorough and effective needs analysis also validates the need for investment in a learning program, or conversely, precludes the development of a program that may not be necessary.

The approach taken for any needs analysis will, to some extent, depend on the context. For example, a needs analysis for a teacher of a primary school class will differ significantly from a needs analysis in an organisational training context. Conducting a needs analysis for an eLearning program that is planned for commercialisation (i.e. to be sold) will require a range of additional considerations.

While there are variations in approaches, depending on the context, there are some consistent questions that need to be asked in any successful needs analysis process: 

  • What behavioural, knowledge or performance changes are required?
  • What is the current level of performance or knowledge?
  • What is the cause of the performance gap?
  • What are the value benefits of addressing the performance gap?

For organisations

The OTP Model

The O-T-P Model created by McGehee and Thayer (1961) can help to provide a framework around the needs analysis process by providing some structure to the formulation of questions posed. As illustrated in fig.1, the framework calls for analysis at the organisational level (’O’), the task level (‘T’) and the personal level (‘P’).

Figure 1 – O-T-P Model of Needs analysis

eLearning needs analysis OTP Model


At the organisational level, the main intention is to determine the expectations of the organisation. That is, how are learners expected to perform, or what are they expected to know upon completion of the training. An organisational analysis can also help to identify the role that existing training, policies, processes or culture play in either giving rise to or helping to address any performance gaps. This process should also help to clearly identify individuals or groups within an organisation as target groups for the learning program. 

At the task level, the focus is on the current performance of the audience. This analysis must consider the roles of the individuals involved, and how existing skills, training, and habits measure up against the organisation’s expectations or requirements.

The personal level targets the intended audience of the program, focusing on individual learners and relevant employees. The purpose any analysis at the personal level is to identify variations in performance or knowledge relative to expectations across the group, whilst also helping to determine which individuals should undergo the training course and which should not. Significant variations in knowledge or performance can also help to inform the instructional design. For example, the use of branching scenarios or adaptive learning strategies can help to target the learning content at the appropriate level.

Needs gathering and analysis

In a company or organisation setting, an eLearning needs analysis must include contributions from all key stakeholders in order to ensure appropriate buy-in to the investment, and generate a consensus as to the needs, objectives and expectations for the course.

The needs analysis will start with a detailed information gathering process, and will likely include: 

  • stakeholder consultations;
  • cross-functional workshops;
  • staff questionnaires;
  • focus groups;
  • reviews of existing training;
  • direct observations; and
  • data collection and analysis.

Stakeholder consultations

Stakeholder consultations are an ideal starting point to understanding the needs and expectations for the course, as well as highlighting possible areas of tension around the scope of the project. By identifying areas of divergence among stakeholders, an action plan to highlight and stave off potential problems can easily be developed.

Key questions might include: 

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What decisions will need to be made and who will make them?
  • What needs relevant to each stakeholder should be considered?
  • What problems currently exist that the course will help to address?
  • What is the cause of these problems?
  • What do stakeholders expect the eLearning project to accomplish, and what impact will it have on impact the business/organisation?
  • What learner competencies will be addressed?
  • What are the key drivers of the project? (cost, schedule, quality)
  • How will the success of the project be measured?
  • What regulations need to be considered?
  • Who will ultimately own or take responsibility for the finished product?

Cross-functional workshops

Cross-functional workshops are an ideal forum to review the outcomes of wide stakeholder communications, address areas of potential disagreement, and validate consensus around the needs the eLearning project will address.

Depending on the organisation, cross-functional workshop, particularly ones that includes senior management representatives, may be challenging to set up, and come with significant time pressures. It is, therefore, wise to use these workshops to present preliminary ideas and recommendations for comment and feedback, rather than relying on the workshop to build the learning objectives from scratch.

Staff questionnaires

Staff surveys are a useful method to: 

  • identify the nature of the problem to be solved from the staff’s perspective;
  • establish the scope and nature of the perceived need among staff;
  • identify differences in current levels of knowledge on the topic/s; and
  • identify differences in expectations for the course between management (key stakeholders) and staff.


Focus groups

A focus group is a group interview that is designed to address a particular issue in order to achieve an objective. They typically involve 5–10 people that are representative of the target audience. In focus group sessions, participants will be led through a series of questions with a view to identifying areas of need.

Tips for focus group questions: 

  • The questions posed should be focussed on the topic that is the subject of the needs analysis.
  • Structure questions to keep the group on topic. 
  • Keep questions simple and direct (e.g. avoid using ‘or’ / ‘and’ in questions).
  • The questions should be open-ended in order to facilitate discussion amongst the group, allowing for  in order common areas of misunderstanding, debate or confusion to be identified. 
  • Pose questions that will help to illustrate the cause of potential performance gaps.


Review of existing training

Reviewing an organisation’s existing training on the topic of the analysis will help generate a more detailed understanding of the nature and cause of any performance gaps. The analysis should focus on both what is covered in the existing training, and how it is delivered, with the purpose being to determine what works, and what does not.

It is helpful to perform this analysis as part of a stakeholder consultation or workshop process, as the individuals that are most familiar with the topic are likely to identify and articulate the shortcomings of existing training more efficiently and effectively than a facilitator or instructional designer that is not familiar with the topic.


Direct observations

Direct observations involve monitoring and observing individuals (the learning audience) as they perform a task, either in their workplace or in a simulation. The results of such observations are subsequently analysed to assist in defining the nature of the performance gaps to be addressed.

Direct observation provides for an appreciation of the gaps or shortcomings beyond those reported through consultations and questionnaires. They may give rise to a deeper appreciation of the cultural or systemic issues that may be at play in limiting individuals or an organisation from performing as desired.


Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection and analysis provides for a more objective evaluation of performance gaps, whilst also informing the design of the learning experience, and in particular, what learning messages and activities should be given greatest emphasis.

Data can be obtained from a range of sources including, but not limited to, surveys and direct observations. Wider sources of data collection such as  customer feedback, sales performance data or trends, and competitor performance data should be considered if relevant. 


Getting to the root cause of a performance gap

In addition to identifying performance gaps, it is also important that the eLearning needs analysis determine the root causes of any gaps. While in some contexts the cause may be obvious(e.g. lack of experience, lack of relevant training), in others there may be other factors at play such as cultural issues or poor processes. It is important to take the time to establish the cause/s of performance gaps, as this will inform the learning objective and the instructional design process.


Define the need and the learning objective

After consulting widely, and collecting the data necessary to fully appreciate the scope and causes of performance or knowledge gaps, the next step is to distil all the information in order to get a true picture of needs, and set the expectations for the outcome of the eLearning process. .

Defining the need or gap, and the expectations for the performance outcomes after the learning process is completed will: 

  1. Provide the justification for investment in the development of the eLearning program.
  2. Provide the basis for the learning objective that will underpin the instructional design process.

For commercial courses

Where a course is to be commercialised (i.e. sold either to institutions or to the broader public), the needs analysis will take on a different shape and will have different requirements.

First, the eLearning needs analysis will likely not be limited to one organisation, and will, therefore, need to be performed across a larger population of organisations or people. In this context, stakeholder consultations will need to be performed more widely across an appropriate sample. Workshops and direct observations may be logistically challenging to set up, so surveys and appropriate data collection and analysis must be performed in order to reach an objective conclusion in relation to the nature of the need, the level and diversity of current knowledge, and the value benefit of addressing performance gaps.


Commercial viability

Assessing the commercial viability of a course goes beyond a needs analysis, and requires a commercial assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of competitor course offerings, along with the willingness of the target audience to pay. The key point here is—just because there is a performance or knowledge gap doesn’t mean people will pay to address it. Therefore, it is vital that appropriate due diligence is performed in determining whether or not there is a true willingness for people to pay for the proposed course offering. This due diligence ultimately requires engagement with the target audience; speak to them and probing their true appetite for the proposed eLearning course.