Six Elements of a Useful Educational Needs Assessment

How things change. What were once considered “best practices” in association management are now thought of as inadequate or outdated. Case in point: doing a membership survey or needs assessment every three years. Sure, some associations still stick to this timetable, but many in the community point out the danger in waiting that long to understand your membership and market’s professional development needs.

Innovations and disruptions are affecting every industry and profession. Jobs are changing and educational needs are evolving. Three years is too long between need assessment cycles. It’s best to rethink how you approach needs assessments if you wish to develop and deliver relevant, useful education that meets existing market needs and anticipates future needs.

#1: Listen all the time 

If three years is too long to go between needs assessments, then doing one every year should tell you everything you need to know, right? Not necessarily. “You can’t rely on an annual needs assessment to understand your market—you need to tune in and listen consistently throughout the year,” said Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele from Tagoras in their white paper, Four Keys to Profitable Learning Products for Your Association.

In an ASAE Collaborate discussion (members-only), Dean West, FASAE, president of Association Laboratory, made the same point. 

“The episodic collection (every 3 years, 5 years, etc.) is an outmoded practice that is being rapidly rejected by modern associations because it pretends that the needs of your market change on a predictable time frame. Modern organizations, interested in best practices, develop a system to continually monitor their market and its needs through a variety of channels. It never stops.”

#2: Go beyond surveys 

Listening all the time means taking other approaches beyond surveys. Instead of relying only on what members (and non-members) tell you, watch what they do—a better indicator of their true interests. Website and email analytics can help you study the behavior of your target audiences: 

•    What they search for on your website
•    Where they linger on your website
•    Which links they click in your emails
•    Which webinars and conference sessions they attend
•    What they’re saying in online community discussions

“Association folks just love their surveys, but many questions can only be truly answered with qualitative research. And qualitative research is sadly underutilized,” said Robin Wedewer, a senior consultant at Tecker International, in an Associations Now article.

In another Collaborate discussion, Kevin Whorton, founder of Whorton Marketing & Research, spoke of his preference for individual phone calls over focus groups. He said focus group discussions can be negatively affected by participant bias and group dynamics.

Whorton also recommends site visits, the “less formal the better,” he said. He suggested “one-on-one visits/tagalongs with multiple individuals in a single setting, or a variety of staff positions if the association is a trade.”

needs assessment site visit

#3: Get the questions right

The usefulness of a needs assessment depends on the quality of the questions you ask. In yet another Collaborate discussion, Whorton said, “It's still the relevance and quality of the questions and the analysis that makes the difference in identifying and articulating needs of your members and non-members.”

Needs assessment questions must elicit the information you seek:

•    Skills and knowledge that are needed on the job now and in the future
•    Education delivery preferences
•    How well existing programs meet needs
•    Where else your membership and market are getting education and why

What type of education will make a real impact by improving job and business performance, and moving someone forward in their career? To get a true understanding of needs, you need qualitative market research in addition to surveys so you can dig deeper and get beyond surface responses.

Dean West warned, “Members can't ‘tell’ you what their needs are. They don't have needs, they have problems, frustrations, etc. that they may not even realize they have…You must understand the environment (business, professional, etc.) within which your market operates. The market determines their needs. It is the cause of the problems, frustrations, etc.”

#4: Go beyond membership

Needs assessments help you avoid relying on the usual suspects for market information: the echo chamber of association leadership. But you need to go beyond surveying members only. Talk to employers, HR professionals, and industry recruiters too. They know which skills are in demand and where job applicants come up short.

Whorton suggested surveying “never-members, former members, students, associates, chapter members, certificants, and customers (as appropriate).”

#5: Segment your needs assessment data

Don’t focus on overall market needs, break it down into needs by segment, for example, by generation, by member tenure, and by career stage. Whorton said, “It's important to avoid the one-size-fits-all approach of using one technique and overly focusing your assessment on the membership at large without regard to how needs vary by audience segments within your full constituency.”

needs assessment

#6: Share needs assessment results with members

Share your needs assessment findings with all members, not just committee and board members. Present a series of webinars to inform members about the industry trends and skills gaps you’ve identified. Whorton said, “Being able to weave your association-oriented findings into the bigger picture of trends in [your industry] and your profession will get their attention and help them put what you’ve discovered into a more meaningful context.”

These webinars reveal where members need to improve their skills and knowledge, and pique their interest in the need for lifelong learning. Members will also see the value in participating in a survey and may be more likely to contribute the next time you ask.

Whorton suggested “having several webinars with co-hosts, such as a committee member who can serve as an SME, or your ED, or even a different department head who can offer their perspectives on what these findings imply for conferences, web content, professional affairs, etc.” He recommended webinars aimed at the different segments in your membership to discuss “what your survey suggests about their unique needs.”

Stay in touch with your membership and market’s educational needs not just once every few years, but throughout the year, using a mix of survey and listening tactics. By understanding your market’s existing educational needs and anticipating their future needs, your association will stay in front of the competition and in tune with your members and prospects.

market research
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