Chapter 2: Knowing What You Need
Use a variety of techniques to obtain information from all types of potential users, then prioritize your needs according to what will make your organization more effective.
What are the Steps in the Needs Assessment Process?
Once you have decided what you think the major requirements will be, it is time to start gathering more specific information. This information gathering process is necessary so that key decision makers will have what they need to make educated decisions. Although it is really just one component in the overall process of putting solutions in place, you may want to treat the needs assessment as a mini-project of its own. Once you have identified the specific participants who will contribute to the needs assessment, the key steps are:
Step 1. Gathering the Needs Information
- Gather the needs-related information (usually the most critical and time-consuming part of the process).
- Sift through and prioritize the needs or requirements.
- Document the results.
Information gathering can be time-consuming, so it is helpful to set a reasonable schedule and try to stick to it. You may, however, extend the deadline if important participants still have not offered their suggestions. It is essential to give everyone sufficient time to make their opinions heard.
Information gathering should be approached with caution, as it often suffers from reactions representing two extremes. The extremes are:
Your job will be to distinguish real from exaggerated needs, and give each the importance it deserves.
- Reluctant participants who may not see the importance of the project and may only be involved half-heartedly.
- Overly zealous participants who have been waiting years to unburden themselves of their endless requirements and their difficult jobs, and may go overboard during your quest for information.
There are several techniques decision makers can use to gather information. Table 2.1 contains some examples.
The questions in Figure 2.1 can be used in a general administrative needs assessment for an education agency. Using this model, a different set of questions could be developed to identify instructional technology needs to be used in either face-to-face interviews or a questionnaire.
Step 2. Reviewing and Prioritizing the Needs
Once information has been gathered, you must review the needs and determine which ones are most important for inclusion in your technology solution. First, you must extract the key nuggets - the statements of discrete, separate needs, each of which can be assessed and addressed. Hopefully, many participants will cite the same or similar needs. Keep these needs to a reasonable number, perhaps by listing the needs at a fairly general level. Remember, at this point there is no need to think about how the actual technology will work; focus on what the participants need and want to be able to do. One way to organize the needs is the use the following categories:
Now you must prioritize the needs. It is likely that the set of needs you've gathered is a mixed bag of things that could best be addressed in a number of different ways:
- Information capture (e.g., student grades and attendance, teacher employment data, new library book titles).
- Information access (e.g., previous student course grades, library book availability, instructional software use, World Wide Web surfing).
- Information processing capability (e.g., grade point averages, trend lines, finished documents).
- Information sharing (e.g., email, video teleconferencing, telephones, TV, electronic transcripts, electronic data interchange).
As a management technique, it may be helpful to separate your instructional needs from administrative needs, but keep in mind that there is no magic formula for doing so. Still, keeping the big picture in mind is both helpful and necessary. The more features your technology has, the more costly and difficult it may be to implement and support. So, be careful not to promise the participants that all the bells and whistles they would like will actually materialize. Adapt the following questions and use them as a litmus test for prioritizing.
- Some needs (such as ones involving repetitive tasks and mass storage and retrieval of data) are best carried out using technology.
- Some other needs or tasks are best done manually.
- Some needs are problems that can be solved by changing your organization's policies and procedures ("business process re-engineering" is the buzzword most often applied to this
- Finally, there are some needs that, while real, simply don't make the cut. You can afford to defer or ignore them, and live with the consequences.
The needs you define at this point, and the priorities you attach to them, will be used during the next phase of the overall process: deciding upon the characteristics of your technology solution.
Step 3. Documenting Your Results
There is no one right way to document your results. A good rule of thumb is to pretend your involvement with the project will end at this phase, and someone will have to pick up where you left off. Don't get ahead of yourself by being specific about computers, networking and other components that will be included in your technology solution. A general statement of needs is what is required initially.
Figure 2.2 contains a suggested outline for a Needs Statement document. You can see that there are several types of descriptions you will need to include. The following is a description of what is meant by Functional Needs, Technical Requirements, and Security and Ethical Considerations.