Ask the Expert: TNA Questionnaires

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14th Feb 2007
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The question: I'm conducting a TNA and would like to send out a Training Needs Survey questionnaire to all the functional directors. As they are mostly engaged in their busy schedules, it might be difficult if I ask them to write me some descriptive answers; and some of them might find it hard to tell what programs they need. Therefore, I plan to draft a user-friendly questionnaire for them to complete and I'll follow it up with an interview. Any ideas?

Adrian Snook of the Training Foundation responds: One of the benefits of your plan to send a questionnaire is that you will get an individual response from each director about the training needs of their function, which will be a useful starting point for further discussions in the follow-up interview. Questionnaires are inexpensive to develop and quick and easy to distribute by email. However, pressing the ‘send’ button isn’t necessarily the end of the story ….

Designing and writing questionnaires can be more difficult than it appears. This stems partly from the challenge of deciding exactly what information you require, and partly from the intrinsic ambiguity of written questions.

You said “the directors are engaged in their busy schedules” so be prepared for a low response rate and allow time after the closing date to follow-up the directors who were too busy to respond. In my experience, however simple and user-friendly the questionnaire, there is always a percentage of people who don’t complete it. Remember, if you go ahead and analyse a low response, you will get skewed results.

Keep the questionnaire as simple as possible and once decided upon, avoid the inevitable temptation to expand it. Focus the questionnaire on specifics not generalities. Beware of the ‘wish list’ syndrome where directors tick all the training listed on the questionnaire as being required just because it is on the list.

Directors might interpret questions differently to those of us in training, so write then modify your questions until you are sure they are clear. Perhaps you could send the questionnaire to one director before you send it to the others to eliminate these ambiguities.

You said “it might be difficult if I ask them to write me some descriptive answers” because of their time constraints. So another tip is to work out how you are going to analyse the returned data before you develop the questions. Using descriptive questions where directors are free to give any answer would create problems further down the line when you come to analyse the responses.

So to keep your questionnaire time-friendly, phrase your questions as either closed so that the directors only have to tick yes or no; multiple choice so that they only have to select one answer from a choice of answers; multiple response where they select all those that apply from a given list; rating or scaling where they are asked to indicate views against a worded or numbered scale or ranking where they rank items in order of suitability or importance eg. This is a list of the different ways we can deliver learning, please rank them in order of suitability for your function, eg, put 1 against the most suitable, 2 against the next and so on.

Finally, please bear in mind that if you write a question that is subjective eg. “How confident do you feel that your staff …?” then you might well get an answer that has been influenced by the events of the day.

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Mike Ditchburn of Bourne Training responds: In our experience when working with Directors it is best to focus on their business challenges rather than their training needs. However, that still leaves the issue of what detail they will want to/can provide.

If you know their business challenges before you issue the TNA pro-forma then you should try and tailor the proforma to them. However, if you don’t here are a few suggestions about how you might approach the questionnaires:

  • Initially ask an open question about their business challenges (preferably those which they think training can positively impact). Leave only a small space for their responses (say, 3-4 bullet pointed lines) - that way they’ll know you don’t need too much of their time, and tell them you’ll follow-up in a face to face meeting. Even if they’re too busy to answer they can see you’re approaching them at the right level.
  • Look at precedents for executive training in your organisation to help you devise the other questions – what have previous TNA exercises identified so you can base ‘yes/no’ questions around these areas. Whatever you do, make sure they focus on learning outcomes rather than inputs.
  • Don’t be afraid to offer a short ‘menu’ of options, for example if executive coaching or IT training are historically requested then include these. You’ll have the follow-up meeting to discuss further but it may help at this stage to give them ideas that will save them thinking time.

You seem to be rightly keen to avoid the trap of thinking you can send a questionnaire to executives and get back what you need. Above all you need to be realistic and accept that a well structured face to face meeting will be your main source of qualitative information – anything you can achieve before this (even if just to focus the meeting and ensure you achieve the desired outputs) is really a bonus.

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