Conduct impactful needs assessments for strategic research projects

by | Dec 14, 2021

If your company has questions that it needs to have answered, looking to your competitors or customers for insights is often a great start. However, it may be daunting to know where to begin, which is why beginning with a needs assessment (also referred to as a needs analysis) is a common starting point. A needs assessment, as its name implies, assesses you and/or your company’s overarching needs from an intelligence gathering endeavor. A needs assessment should involve all individuals who will use the intelligence, with the goal of identifying a clear objective and set of questions for a research project at the end of this project phase.

Needs assessments begin with defining the project

Define a goal or the problem you are trying to solve

The first step in conducting a needs assessment is for an organization to ask itself why it is interested in embarking on the project in the first place. Maybe there’s a new competitor in their market that they want to become familiar with, or maybe they are looking for new markets to expand into. It is important for organizations to have a clear goal for their research. This overarching goal will help define the questions that need to be answered, as well as other project parameters such as geography, timeline, budget, and more.

Identify specific questions to be answered

After an organization has defined the overarching goal of the engagement, it needs to narrow down further into what questions need to be answered. For example, if the goal is to improve an existing product, research questions to support this may include “what do our competitor’s users like/dislike about their product?” or “what features do our competitors specifically highlight in marketing materials?” Knowing what your organization hopes to accomplish with the research can help determine what questions your organization’s strategic research project needs to be asking and will help set other parameters in the needs assessment. Organizations should work through these questions from different angles, creating a comprehensive list of information needs to support the end goal.

Needs assessments also identify other project parameters

Once an organization has its list of research questions or topics in place, it needs to define several scope parameters to detail the insights it hopes to uncover. These scope parameters can include: 

Relevant players

If an organization is completing a competitive intelligence project focusing on competitors, it needs to determine which companies are worth investigating. These stipulations could be more general, for example, only looking at companies past a certain threshold of market share. However, some projects may lend themselves to more specificity, perhaps the organization has sufficient information on more established competitors and decides to focus on a few new players in its market. Or perhaps the organization is interested in a deep dive into one specific player of interest.

Geography

Once an organization has determined its research questions/goals, it needs to define what geographical areas it will be focusing on. For example, if an organization only operates in Canada, it likely does not need to know how competitors market themselves in Germany. Geography can get even more specific than country. For example, an organization may be focusing solely on a competitor who has opened brick and mortar locations in a new city. It is important to define the relevant geography as it ensures that only information pertinent to an organization’s specific goals is being gathered.

Audience

Defining the audience of the research helps further define goals, research topics, and impacts the deliverables that will form the output of the project. If the audience consists of individuals in the C-suite with limited amounts of time, deliverables will likely be a lot more concise than a deliverable to a mid-level research analyst. Clearly defining the audience will dictate the research to be conducted and the output.

Timeline

An important consideration when it comes to timeline is what period of information is relevant to an organization’s project. For example, if an organization is looking at how a competitor’s similar product failed in the past in order to avoid their mistakes, information that was released after the product was shuttered will likely not be relevant. Again, these parameters must be defined so an organization can clearly communicate and focus on information that is relevant to its goals.

Further, it is important that a timeline is set for the project. One of the first things to consider in terms of timeline is when is the information needed. For example, some projects may be used to aid quickly approaching decisions whereas others may be relevant to more long-term goals. Knowing when the information needs to be used helps an organization determine the urgency of the projects which will then influence factors like the level of depth the research is able to provide.

Budget

Another factor to consider when conducting needs assessment is budget. Budget can be either monetary, for example when engaging with a third party team, or hours-based when using internal resources. A smaller budget can affect the level of depth of the project, and the core team must then determine what information is most crucial to the project. For example, an organization might want a profile on a competitor, but it does not have the budget, or internal resource capacity for an in-depth appraisal of the company. Therefore, it needs to be very careful in determining what questions most need to be answered so it can have an effective project despite limited resources.

Conducting a needs assessment discussion

Whether you are a research practitioner at a third-party agency, or a client-side project manager gathering needs for a research project, there are a few things to consider when you are collecting input from others on what is needed by a research project:

  • Ask open-ended questions that are not leading.
  • Do not be afraid of asking a bad question! Every question is a valid question, and you never know what stone you might unturn by asking.
  • Be open to the ideas that are being presented – maybe it adds complexity to the methodology or throws a curveball on the timing or budget, but a good needs assessment focuses on gathering ideas first, and then secondly focuses on how to define and refine those needs.
  • Make sure you are engaging with all relevant stakeholders – it is not helpful to find out three quarters of the way through a project that a number of key questions will go unanswered because someone wasn’t involved in the process to define the project.
  • Take the time necessary to ensure the relevant needs are captured.

In conclusion

A needs assessment is a crucial component of any strategic research project. If you are embarking on a strategic research project, it allows you, your team, and other project stakeholders to get on the same page internally and enables you to clearly and succinctly convey your needs to any third-party research firms you may engage for project assistance. Further, by conducting this exercise you define a targeted approach for your efforts, an important first step in ensuring project success.

Schedule a meeting with the HelloInfo team to learn more about needs assessment and how you can get started on a strategic research project.

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