For many organizations, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed underlying vulnerabilities and skills gaps that have proven harmful — even detrimental — to business functions. With “business as usual” a distant memory, companies must take a more agile and proactive approach to identifying the needs of the business, as well as the needs of its people, to ensure operations and productivity do not stall amid current and future organizational uncertainty and stress.

Learning leaders aren’t fortunetellers. They can’t predict the next organizational crisis and which skills will be most critical in stabilizing the business. However, learning and development (L&D) teams can play an integral role in ensuring the organization uses its time, money and resources well by conducting effective needs assessments in times of organizational crisis.

“The training needs assessment,” says Dr. Sydney Savion, general manager of learning at Air New Zealand, “is intended to ask the right question, and that’s basically what training needs exist and what training is required to fill the gap.” By evaluating both the “current conditions of the business” and “the desired outcomes,” learning leaders can identify skills gaps and the learning needs that fall in between them.

With that goal in mind, here a few tips learning leaders should keep in mind when executing needs assessments amid organizational uncertainty.

1. Ask the Right Questions, Consistently

When conducting a needs assessment, asking the right questions is critical. Without asking the right questions, Alycia Angle, a talent development partner at a Fortune 500 tech company in Dallas, cautions, “the same problem [will keep] popping up. It means we haven’t done our due diligence to really understand what the challenge is. So, we solve for the wrong thing, or we solve for a symptom of the problem, but we haven’t gotten down to the core of what’s really going on.”

Learning leaders can mitigate discrepancies and inconsistencies when conducting needs analyses by “[trying] not to deter from the language that [they] use,” suggests Angle, “because the slightest variation in a word could have a different meaning.”

Kathryn Connolly, CPTM, director of global talent management in human resources at WEX Inc., says, “Oftentimes, we’re so quick to turn around programs just by nature of our work. But how can we really have those benchmark key performance metrics upfront, so that we can show the value that we’re bringing to the business when [all is] said and done?” Asking the right questions can help learning leaders identify the key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics that consistently contribute to business success.

2. Go to the Source

When learning professionals receive a training request, their first inclination may be to spring into action to meet the stated learning need as quickly as possible. However, Connolly says, “oftentimes, we have strategic requests that come in, and the vision is developed from the executive leader or sponsor. You have to take into consideration how that’s impacting the workforce.” Learning requests are often communicated by C-suite leaders who see a need for training on the front line but may not fully understand the nature of the learning need.

Executive and leadership teams may be well-intentioned in their training requests, but to provide truly effective training solutions, learning leaders must go directly to the source: their learners. Doing so means “making sure we’re reaching out to not just the management level but the front line [and] making sure we understand the needs of the people that are on the ground,” says Connolly.

“We can’t solve problems with the same mindset we use to create them,” Angle shares. “We have to get out of our own way and ask the questions to the people doing the work.” Gathering insights from employees, rather than relying solely on the C-suite, can ensure learning leaders have a comprehensive understanding of the problem — and provide a comprehensive solution.

3. Identify Opportunities for Cross-skilling

“A lot of companies have business continuity plans,” which usually “focus on supply-chain, technology [and] infrastructure,” says Savion. “You never see learning or cross-skilling in that business continuity plan.” Learning leaders can demonstrate their value and ensure their place in the business continuity plan by identifying opportunities for cross-skilling — or cross-training — employees.

The term “cross-skilling” refers to training employees in a variety of business-critical functions and tasks outside of their job function to ensure operations don’t stall due to employee absence or organizational upheaval. As layoffs and furloughs have run rampant through organizations amid the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, “many companies have been floundering to figure out how to cross-train people,” says Savion.

Learning leaders can identify opportunities for cross-skilling when conducting training needs assessments. In her recent guest editor column for Training Industry Magazine, Savion writes, “Conduct a skills risk analysis of business-critical units that drive the highest value proposition. Then, begin cross-skilling select workforce populations for your new business strategy.” Cultivating a versatile, adaptive and cross-trained workforce goes a long way in times of crisis.

Although they can’t tell the future, learning leaders can protect against future crises by conducting effective needs analyses that provide a comprehensive understanding of the learning needs of the business and its people and identify opportunities for cross-skilling on the front line. In 2020, the learning function has an opportunity to demonstrate its value by bolstering and supporting training that is critical to business continuity and success.