Monday, March 13, 2023

So You Need Training. Let’s Define That

In the 25+ years I’ve been in Learning and Development, I’ve gotten a lot of requests for training. Some requests just need communication of an upcoming change, kind of an FYI to staff, others require lots of time and energy on my part to develop the robust learning experiences that will create transfer of skills for on-the-job performance. If you can start by thinking through a few things about your request, it will help us nail down what you’re really looking for. The following are the questions I ask in my Down and Dirty Needs Assessment, which leverage the 5W and an H that you learned about in grammar school: who, what, when where, why and how.

Identify the Big Picture

We begin with determining the purpose and the goals of the training by asking why, how, and what.


The first question is about the business. What is the business need driving this request? “They need to learn the new software” isn’t a business need. It’s a training need. What will they be doing with this new software? If the call center is upgrading its database, the staff needs to learn how it functions, but the business need is that they will be able to migrate to the new software knowing it well enough to keep call volume and customer satisfaction scores at or above the current levels. We expect a drop with the adoption of new software, but we want to mitigate that to keep the metrics stable. The business wants CSRs who can nimbly and effectively answer customer questions, even if that means additional research is needed. The business need then, is to be able to effectively use the new software to keep the business metrics stable. If this new software is supposed to improve customer satisfaction scores, then the business goal is to improve customer satisfaction scores, which is why they invested in the new program. Training should support that endeavor.


Next is the big picture goal, which needs to be defined in a single sentence of fill-in-the-blanks: In the end, learners should KNOW___________ and be able to [DO]_____________. Very often training requesters come to me with lots of content and tell me that’s what they want the staff to be trained on. Training is about behavior – something you can physically observe. How do I know that they know something? They do something to show it. This goal needs to be clarified into one single sentence – the 50,000 foot view of the initiative. For our customer service reps, the software training goal would be this: In the end, CSRs will know the new software well enough to be able to quickly answer customer questions locating the correct information as needed. They have to know the software to be able to do their jobs with it. Quickly is included since that impacts the metrics the business measures against.


The next question asks “How will we know that the learners know the software well enough to locate information and quickly answer customer questions?” This defines the desired behavior and helps identify what needs to be in the final assessment. Perhaps we give them 10 questions to answer in a certain time period. A big key here is that customer requests tend to follow the Pareto Principle: 80% of the calls that come in revolve around the same 20% of the questions that come in. We want the learners to zip through those key questions and know where to go to find the answers for the outlier questions. The focus of our training needs to be proficiency with the common tasks, and the knowledge and skill to locate the resources to complete outlier requests. If they will only get a certain kind of question once in a while, the proficiency needs to be how to locate help for the outliers and familiarity with those types of questions, not necessarily unconscious competence in them. Training can’t make them experts in everything, but we do want them to be able to do 80% of what the job entails with fluidity in those common questions.

At this point we have our key goals:

  • Business Goal (The WHY):CSRs will be able to effectively use the new software to keep the business metrics stable.
  • Training Goal (The WHAT):CSRs will know the new software well enough to be able to quickly answer customer questions locating the correct information as needed.
  • Assessment Goal (The HOW): CSRs will demonstrate their facility with the software by being able to answer 10 questions consisting of 8 typical questions and 2 atypical questions in X amount of time.

Determine the Logistics

Next, we look at logistics, asking who, when and where.


The who asks questions in two dimensions: the audience and the approvers. We need to know who we are developing the training for. Yes, it’s CSRs, but what do we know about them? Are they generally tech savvy, or tech challenged? How old are they? We train 19-year-olds differently than 50-year-olds. What kind of experience do they have with the role? Is this a transition from software they love to something new, or a totally new system to add to their workload? Certainly, there is a range within the group of all of these things, but having a basic persona of a typical rep helps us to define the feel for the training and lets us set the context of things better. Since we are developing a customized program, we want to customize it for the type of learner and their needs. We also need to determine if we need a manager overview version, or if they will be learning what the CSRs need to learn.

The who also asks about the resources and reviewers who are available to answer questions. Who is the subject matter expert (SME), the one who knows the software and all of its ins and outs? They must be available to answer the questions that arise in development. Often, we are asked to build training for software that is still in development. This SME can help keep things on track by informing the training staff of changes since they are likely part of the planning and implementation group. The SME is the one who reviews content for accuracy as it’s being built.

Who are the other stakeholders in the project? Who needs to review the training? Who is the final decision maker? Who will make decisions when stakeholders disagree? Getting this out front at the beginning helps the stakeholders budget time, and having a final decision maker aids in settling differences.


The when asks when the program is rolling out, and helps plan the time needed for the learners to participate in the training in whatever format it is delivered in. We can’t train too far in advance or people will forget it unless there is opportunity to practice before it goes live. When also asks about when the training will be expected to occur. Will learners have dedicated time for it or will they be expected to sandwich several hours of elearning into their day? It also helps the developers plan for the creation of the learning experiences and materials, which take much longer than most business people realize.


Our where question considers logistics. Where will the elearners need to do the thing that they are being trained on? Salespeople have to have information at their fingertips to be able to answer questions and present the products. Our CSRs will be using these skills at their workstation, so we can allow for job aids and other assistance to scaffold their learning and support the transition.

The where also looks at where the learners will be doing the learning.  Will it be in a training room? At their desks? The closer you can emulate the setting to the actual way the learner will use the skills, the better the transfer back to the job.

Additionally, the where asks where the materials will live. We are long past the days of 3” binders that collected dust on the shelf above our desks. Will the learning be housed in the LMS? Sharepoint? The intranet? This depends on how the learner will access it, and for the need to return to it. In our CSR scenario, if a learner needed to look up how to do something they learned in training, does it make sense to require logging into the LMS and 18 clicks to get there? This would certainly fly in the face of the business goal of performing at the same level. It may be we give them job aids or an app for easy on the job access.

To sum up the logistics questions, we need to know

  • Who
    • the training is for
    • provides the subject matter expertise
    • reviews the developing material
  • When
    • the project rolls out
    • the training needs to be delivered
  • Where
    • the skills will be used
    • the materials will be housed for learner access


As a business person, you have a lot of things to deal with every day. You are focused on metrics, people concerns, and operations. When a change is coming, you recognize the need for training to prepare and equip your people for success. As an instructional designer, my expertise is in how people learn. I promise to work with you to create the best learning experience to meet your goals for your initiative. We can hit the ground running if you spend some time at the beginning thinking through the 5 Ws and H around your need. Our goal is not just to dump information, but to provide content that is used in the application of skills that demonstrate the learning knows and can do what the change requires.