Why Do Needs Assessments?

This short sequence will be an opportunity to share some ideas about needs assessments. Why are they necessary?  In the next two posts, I look at their content and how to deliver them.

So, what is a needs assessment? [January 2017: This is an old post and looks back to a period when I offered a needs assessment as part of a web design package.  I have since changed my approach considerably.] I am currently reviewing my assessment offer and will introduce some changes soon. The first thing I’ve noticed, returning to pages I wrote over a year ago, is I do not really define an assessment.

What is an Assessment?

Feedback I’ve received suggests the term “needs assessment” may help potential clients understand what is on offer. Normally a needs assessment compares the current situation with the ideal, identifies the difference and then identifies action steps. Action steps can be prioritised, costed and scheduled.

One complex issue is, are you assessing the needs of the organisation or its web presence? The word “needs” helps clarify the assessment is not primarily of the organisation so much as to assess what the organisation needs from its online presence.  It’s a rare organisation that does not need to improve.  The question is, how can the organisation be improved by its web presence?  You would think most organisations would pay for an assessment because they could see there is potential for improvement through their online presence.

How to do an Assessment

To do this properly the clients and the web consultant need a conversation about the organisation. It may emerge the organisation has many needs and not all of them can be met online. The assessment might help decide which needs can be met online. Clients are not always aware of what can and cannot be done online. Financial and time costs can help make the final decisions about the organisation’s web presence.

A small part of the work will be to review the organisation’s current web presence but the main emphasis will be on what the organisation offers its clients or customers and whether any or all of it can be promoted online.

For many organisations the amount they could do online might be greater than they expect. What they actually do will depend on their priorities, capacity and resources. It may be possible to show them how they could do more than they might think.

But the focus needs to be on the organisation and not the technicalities of working online. This might surprise some clients and part of the skill is getting them to open up about their hopes and dreams for their organisation.

Non-Directive Consultancy

I’ve written elsewhere about non-directive consultancy and this can be helpful although there will be an expectation the web consultant will contribute expert consultancy skills as the work progresses. Getting the balance right between non-directive work and presenting the best online solution can be challenging.

But the non-directive element is important. Some clients may start their assessment with a clear idea about what they want. This may be to the degree that they don’t see the need for an assessment at all. Assessments are usually fairly expensive for this reason. Someone who has already made up their mind and wants someone to carry out their plan does not need an assessment. However, those who do opt for an assessment may still have a clear idea of what they want.

As the assessment progresses the client’s needs will become clearer, at least to the consultant. The skill is on helping the client to line up what they want with what they need and helping them make genuine decisions to meet their needs.

If the client does this they might recognise the help they had from the consultant but the progress in their thinking will be theirs.

An Example

For example, the consultant might suggest a video to help promote the organisation. The client may not be aware of how easy it is to put a video together or the types of video available to them. However, the final decision must be the client’s. They may have reservations about its appropriateness, finance or time demands. The next step is not to insist on the video but to pose the question, we still have the problem to which the video was one possible solution, what other solutions might there be?

Of course it’s even better to list all possible solutions and look at each in detail and then decide. In reality ideas don’t always arrive at once and the process of examining the first in detail might trigger new ideas.

So, next time I’ll show you my current assessment.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 4 comments

Mark Woodhead - November 28, 2014 Reply

OK, I’ll be awkward as usual. Yes, let’s assess needs – we all have needs, people, organsations, companies, we all have needs. Let’s not forget the other side of the coin, – strengths, assets – and in looking at assets let’s not be led astray by a stunted and misleading accountant’s view of what is and what is not an asset. See eg http://www.abcdinstitute.org.

And what about clients? What is a client? A client is someone who is reclining, lying back and thinking of England. I am not reclining. I am not a client. I am an active citizen. What happens when we – companies, IT consultants, community development workers, local authorities… – start thinking of the people we work with not as clients but as active citizens?

Chris - November 30, 2014 Reply

Mea Culpa – I should not have used “client” in this context. I usually use a term such as Consultor. Normally I would use client of someone who receives a service that is not accountable to them. So, for example, a community organisation receiving a grant to deliver a service will have clients as they are not directly accountable to the clients. Such clients will recline as you suggest. The non-directive consultant depends up on an active consultor to be able to do the work.

A needs assessment will include assets as you suggest. The needs are the organisation’s current assets subtracted from their objectives. Those assets will be primarily of the type you describe and also include the substantial financial and property assets beloved of accountants. Ownership of hardware and software may well be relevant to a needs assessment for example.

A Look Inside a Needs Assessment Questionnaire - December 4, 2014 Reply

[…] Thursday, I explained why needs assessments are helpful and today I shall review my needs assessment questionnaire. It is worth checking out my description […]

Relationships in Community and Marketplace - December 5, 2014 Reply

[…] post is a deeper  reflection on a comment  I received in a recent post about needs assessments.  A question raised was about my use of the word ‘client’ and the comment made the […]

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