By Janice Aull, Jeff Bartley, Colleen Olson, and Lauren Weisberg

Tales from the Field, a monthly column, consists of reports of evidence-based performance improvement practice and advice, presented by graduate students, alumni, and faculty of Boise State University’s Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning department.

The Client

ITSS Inc. (a pseudonym) is a leading provider of IT solutions and services across North America. ITSS offers a career development program with a wide range of tools and resources that employees can leverage to drive their own career development. Direct managers aim to support their employees by setting clear expectations, providing ongoing feedback, helping identify development opportunities, and acting as coaches or mentors for the employees when needed. Tools and resources developed and offered by the organization are intended to support both managers and employees in identifying and developing employees’ skills and career interests.

The Performance Issue

ITSS conducts an employee engagement survey bi-annually to assess employee engagement levels. Feedback generated from the past two cycles (2010 and 2012) returned mediocre ratings regarding employees’ satisfaction levels with the organization’s career development program. This highlighted a potential issue for ITSS, as it strives to do its part to ensure that employees are up-to-date with the skills needed for their current roles and prepare them for organizational and career growth. Furthermore, ITSS views highly skilled and engaged employees as a competitive advantage, providing the foundation for the organization’s future success.

Results of these surveys suggested a potential gap between the organization’s intentions and actions for supporting employees and how employees perceive and use the resources provided to them. This introduces the potential for loss of opportunities for employees and, in turn, for the organization as it continues to grow and develop. Initially, ITSS’s stakeholders were concerned that employees were not fully utilizing available career development resources. Data from the engagement surveys highlighted low utilization and an overall unawareness of the existing tools and resources supporting career growth. Specifically, this data reflected that approximately 20% of employees were engaged in using the career development resources, which was 40% below the organization’s desired 60% participation level. Based on this, the client assumed that the problem was due to employees’ lack of motivation or knowledge regarding how to access and use these resources. To further explore the issue and identify solutions to increase employees’ perceptions of the career development program and, in turn, their utilization of it, the client engaged a team of graduate students from Boise State University. From the onset, the team recognized that a performance problem was not readily visible, as the issue highlighted a gap in desired employee behavior rather than a problem affecting organizational outcomes. Rather than jumping to solutions based on the stakeholders’ assumptions, the team convinced the organization to move forward with a comprehensive needs assessment aimed at defining the actual performance problems or opportunities that would effect improved performance, gathering and analyzing data to explore the causes of the performance or opportunities gaps, and recommending one or more interventions that ITSS could implement to close the actual gaps and effect sustainable change.

Conducting a Gap Analysis

To begin the process of clarifying the gap in terms of performance, the team sought answers to the first three of Harless’s (1973) 13 smart questions to determine if there was a performance problem worth solving:

  1. Do we have a problem?
  2. Do we have a performance problem?
  3. How will we know if the problem is solved?

To effectively respond to these three critical questions, the team collaborated with the client to develop a program logic model (see Figure 1). This model provided a high-level overview of ITSS’s career development program by mapping the relationships between the program’s various means (i.e., activities and inputs) and intended outcomes (i.e., outputs, short- and long-term outcomes, and impacts). The team then analyzed the model to better understand if and how the program’s various means were aligned to achieve the intended outcomes. Initial analysis highlighted how ITSS’s current career development tools, resources, and processes should be leveraged to support the ability of employees to take advantage of internal opportunities to move up in the organization and aid their own career progress as well as sustainably enhance the potential and capacity of the organization.


The team then conducted additional internal and external document reviews to explore this issue (see Table 1). Specifically, the research highlighted that ITSS currently fills 33% of positions with internal candidates, which is 5% less than industry standards. The team determined that if they could increase this rate to 38%, it would add to significant financial savings. According to a recent study by Saratoga Institute (Schawbel, 2012), “the average cost of finding and hiring someone from outside the company is 1.7 times greater than an internal hire ($8,676 vs. $15,008)” (para. 4). The team determined the true gap was the 5% difference in current performance versus industry standards. As a result, the team began researching how both ITSS and its employees can close this gap. This led to development of another layer of research and analysis that made use of existing data, which was organized around the structure of Harless’s 13 smart questions (1973) and Gilbert’s behavior engineering model (BEM) (1996).

Table 1

Data Collection Tools and Techniques Used to Identify the Need

Method Source(s)
Internal Document Review/Audit ITSS company documents relevant to the assessment include:

  1. Employee Engagement Survey Results Summary
  2. Career Development Philosophy
  3. Career Development Process and Expectations
  4. Career Development Access to Tools and Resources
  5. Career Development Catalogue
  6. Learning and Development (L&D) program information:
  1. Statistics regarding number and type of e-learning courses taken
  2. Statistics from internal L&D SharePoint site
  1. Talent Review Profile completion

Internal hiring metrics

External Literature Review External documents and research relevant to the assessment include:

  1. Review of current trends in career development and internal mobility with a focus on how and to what degree it affects performance: quality, productivity, or retention (Watkins, West Meiers, and Visser, 2012)

Corporate Leadership Council

The team used these reviews to sequentially answer the first three of Harless’s questions and define the performance gap (see Table 2).

Table 2

Data Collected to Define the Performance Gap

Questions Response
1. Do we have a problem? Yes. The organization’s internal data identified a gap between the current and desired percentages of employees leveraging career development initiatives to help position themselves for additional job opportunities at ITSS. Qualified internal candidates currently fill 33% of open positions, which is 5% below current industry standards.
2. Do we have a performance problem? Yes. The external literature review indicated that organizational outputs and outcomes can be improved by addressing this issue. In particular, ITSS can deliver and receive tremendous business value by effectively implementing internal career development programs that help position employees for additional job opportunities within the company. This is not only a financial benefit, but is also linked to overall job satisfaction and retention.
3. How will we know if the problem is resolved? When ITSS achieves a 5% increase in the number of positions filled by internal candidates.

The team reviewed and confirmed the performance gap with the client to include:

  • Revise the ITSS organization’s career development tools, resources, and processes so that employees use it more frequently and those employees that use it are promoted internally at a rate of 38% after two years (a best-in-industry standard) (see Figure 2).


A Systemic Approach to Cause Analysis

With the performance gap established, the team sought to identify the causes by applying Chevalier’s (2003) updated version of Gilbert’s (1996) BEM as a framework to support a systematic process for data collection, analysis, and synthesis. Chevalier gives motives higher priority than did Gilbert in his original BEM, and the team believed this would aid in pursuing a hunch that motives played a relatively large role in the issues being studied, without otherwise skewing analysis.

This framework supported the team’s ability to adopt a systemic perspective and explore various factors that supported or hindered participation in personal career development such as environmental factors (data, resources, and incentives) and individual factors (knowledge, capacity, and motives). The framework guided data collection planning with questions for focus groups, individual interviews, and online surveys linked to the six BEM categories.

Each step in the data collection approach was conducted sequentially and was based on emerging themes from the previous stage, which supported triangulation of results. As Watkins and others (2012) describe, “deductive approaches begin with a framework or model, then they sort data into the prescribed structure” (p. 65). The team color-coded data based on the six BEM categories (see Figure 3) and tallied the codes in each category to identify trends that could be causing the gap.


Based on the codes identified in the previous step, the team conducted focus groups asking employees to weigh the impact of examples of each code on their decision to pursue development resources offered by the company. This produced a ranked weighting of each code, which allowed the team to rank the impact each category had on employees’ likelihood to pursue company-sponsored career development opportunities.

With this data, the team identified categories within the BEM that were potential causes of the gap, identifying the following sub-factors:

  • Lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities
  • Lack of marketing for available resources
  • Lack of coaching and support to understand how to leverage tools
  • Uncertainty in how to work toward other positions within the organization due to lack of sufficient career mapping resources

To further understand these factors and sub-factors, the team conducted a survey with a subset of employees and managers. Survey questions were focused on the factors and sub-factors in the BEM framework. The results of the survey confirmed the following emerging trends:

  • 41% of respondents either never meet with their managers or only meet with their managers once a year to discuss career development. (DATA)
  • While most respondents indicated that they do have career goals (88%), only 44% of respondents have documented that they use ITSS’s available tools and resources. (DATA)
  • 58% of respondents indicated they believed the available tools and resources are not applicable to their career development. (RESOURCES)
  • 65% indicated that ITSS’s career development program best supported skill development applicable to their current roles. Additionally, when asked to stack-rank the available tools and resources according to their perceived values, the tools that are designed to support navigation of career paths and opportunities (i.e., Career Framework and Clickable Career Map) scored among the lowest. (RESOURCES and INCENTIVES)

Once the analysis and synthesis process was complete, four major trends emerged, all of which related to environmental factors within the BEM:

  1. Data: Lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities
  2. Resources: Lack of clarity about available tools and resources
  3. Resources: Lack of coaching and support to understand how to leverage tools
  4. Incentives: Uncertainty in how to work toward other positions within the organization due to lack of sufficient career mapping resources

The team discovered that while employee motivation could not be discounted, it was not identified as an important influence on employees. Instead, it seemed that the organization could make a larger and more sustainable difference by addressing environmental factors.

Intervention Selection

The team then transferred the potential root causes into a multicriteria analysis chart. Partnering with ITSS subject matter experts, the team took a step-by-step, quantitative analysis approach to review and assign a score to the potential root causes. This included assigning five criteria of equal weight to the analysis, using a rating scale of 1 (lowest priority) through 10 (highest priority). This supported the team’s ability to identify potential improvement activities.

The next step in the intervention selection focused on identifying organizational constraints, which included the need for continuous communication, marketing, and limited support resources for maintenance of the organization’s career development tools and resources. With the constraints identified, the team prioritized the interventions and recommended the following set of interventions, in order of priority as the team estimated the impact:

  • Ensure job descriptions and career maps are current and easily accessible
  • Secure dedicated resources to support the career development program
  • Implement a long-term career development communication and maintenance strategy.
  • Develop and maintain career development expectation training or job aids, clarify the organization’s career development philosophy, define career development expectations for managers and employees, and define where and how to access related tools and resources

Summary of Recommendations

The team recognized a primary organizational constraint existed in that the organization currently offered limited dedicated resources to support and maintain an ongoing career development program. To address this constraint and support accomplishment of the long-term vision the organization desires, the team recommended that ITSS dedicate resources to implement these top-priority interventions and then take future steps to address subsequent interventions in order of priority.


This case study provides a concrete example of how a systematic needs assessment can make use of common tools, frameworks, and processes to produce data-driven conclusions and advice to help an organization solve performance problems and meet its organizational goals.


Boyd, M. (2002). Gap analysis: The path from today’s performance reality to tomorrow’s performance dreams. In G.M. Piskurich (Ed.), HPI essentials: A just-the-facts, bottom-line primer on human performance improvement (pp. 41-49).

Chevalier, R. (2003). Updating the behavior engineering model. Performance Improvement, 42(5), 8-14. doi:10.1002/pfi.4930420504

Corporate Executive Board. (2013). The talent within: Improving internal mobility.

Gilbert, T. F. (1996). Human Competence: Engineering worthy performance (Tribute ed.). Washington, D.C.: The International Society for Performance Improvement.

Harless, J. (1973). An analysis of front-end analysis. Improving Human Performance: A Research Quarterly, 4, 229-244.

Schawbel, D. (2012, August 15). The power within: Why internal recruiting & hiring are on the rise. Retrieved from

Watkins, R., West Meiers, M., & Visser, Y. (2012). A guide to assessing needs: Essential tools for collecting information, making decisions and achieving development results. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. Retrieved from

About the Authors

AullJaniceJanice Aull, Performance Improvement Facilitator

Janice has over 17 years’ experience as a performance improvement facilitator supporting leaders and employees with developing leadership and professional skills. Her responsibilities also include implementing the adoption of company-wide initiatives. Janice is currently pursuing Boise State’s Workplace Performance Improvement graduate certificate and Master’s with DePaul University in Chicago. Janice can be reached at

BartleyJeffJeff Bartley, Performance Improvement Specialist

Jeff currently serves as a technical training instructional designer for Itron Inc. in Raleigh, NC. Jeff holds a Bachelor of Arts from Averett University and has over 15 years’ experience in classroom facilitation, instructional design, technical writing, employee coaching, and performance improvement. He plans to earn his M.S. from Boise State’s Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning program in summer 2015 and can be reached at

OlsonColleenColleen Olson, Performance Improvement Specialist

Colleen has over 19 years of experience in the learning and performance field working in a variety of business sectors with employees across all organizational levels. She specializes in needs assessment, evaluation, and performance improvement solutions. She is a recent graduate of the Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning program at Boise State University and may be reached at

WeisbergLaurenLauren Weisberg, Secondary Educator

Lauren teaches fine art and technology education at a public high school in the Philadelphia suburbs. She is working toward earning her M.S. in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning as well as the Workplace E-Learning and Performance Support (WELPS) certificate through Boise State University by the fall of 2015. Lauren can be reached at