Analysing needs - Bryan Hopkins

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Systems thinking approaches to training needs analysis
In certain respects using systems thinking approaches to carry out a training needs analysis is not much different to doing it using more conventional methodologies. The process flow here shows how this typically works.

The first stage is to develop an initial understanding of what the perceived problem is, and from there may be necessary to gain some organisational support: for example, the problem may turn out to be more complex than is initially thought, so extra time may be needed, or perhaps the expertise of an external consultant could be useful.

It is at this point that systems thinking and the B-P-R model becomes useful. The first stage is to think about the 'B', boundaries. What is part of the problem and what can be left out? Who needs to be consulted and who does not? The systems methodology most useful at this stage is called Critical Systems Heuristics, a technique which involves asking a number of questions relating to who is involved and who is affected and into different ways, about what is and what ought to be. Comparing answers about what the situation actually is and what perhaps it ought to be is a powerful way of clarifying where boundaries needs to be drawn.

The next stage is to develop the initial understanding of the problem, collect further data and make sense of what you find. During this stage we become more interested in 'P' and 'R', perspectives and relationships. Depending on the exact situation we may choose to use one or more different systems tools. Sometimes the cybernetics-based Viable Systems Model is useful, particularly where organisational processes are involved in the perceived problem. Alternatively (or additionally) Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) can be useful, particularly where there are different perspectives and the nature of the problem is not altogether clear.
The diagram to the right shows a 'conceptual model', which is created during one part of the SSM process, and is used to think about how systemic the actual situation is compares to a theoretical model of what it could or should be.
Whichever tool is used, the systems thinking approach really helps to clarify what is going on and what could be done to make things better. When looking at performance problems, systems thinking makes it much easier to identify more holistic solutions, which take into consideration how factors in the workplace may hinder or support the effectiveness of formal training.

The end result is a set of initiatives which have a much higher chance of being successful, but what does this success look like?

Firstly, there is an increased emphasis on integrating formal and informal learning. Formal learning is good at communicating standard, official policies, but informal learning is much more effective at helping people learn how to deal with the infinite variety of things which happen in the workplace. Integrating the two is very powerful.

Secondly, a systemic approach to needs analysis helps the analyst to take aim closer look at the operational context, helping to design solutions which can be used more easily and which will be effective.

Thirdly, the operational context is constantly changing, and systemic approaches recognise this. The analysis will therefore find solutions which are flexible and can deal with changing circumstances.

Finally, systemic thinking encourages a greater use of social learning in both formal and informal solutions. Social learning promotes discussion and an enhanced level of understanding of the subject amongst a group of people rather than within individuals.

There is more information on how to carry out a systemically-based needs analysis in my book, "Learning and Performance: A Systemic Model for Analysing Needs and Evaluating Training".
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