Knowledge Management & Learning at NASA & JPL
Founded on October 1, 1958 by the United States Congress, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established to combat the threat of the Soviet space program. When the Soviet’s put the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in space the “crisis” was a galvanizing force used by President Kennedy to rally the nation to meet the challenge.
Money was no object. It is reported at the height of the “space race” buildup that one in fifty Americans worked on some part of the Apollo program. Putting a “man on the moon” was not only the mission of NASA and associated organizations like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) but that of the entire nation. The tremendous investment of manpower and other resources enabled NASA to achieve a great deal in a short period of time.
NASA’s success at accomplishing its goals in the early days of the space program was a source of tremendous pride, motivation for young Americans to study science and engineering and a catalyst for economic growth through the high-tech industry. With a shift in public policy came a series of budget cuts, downsizing and outsourcing at NASA and JPL. Fantastic failures like the shuttle Challenger explosion, WIRE project, the “blind” Hubble telescope and various Mars projects meant congress did not have the desire to justify more spending on the space program, to a mostly apathetic public. As a result of the years of downsizing, a very large percentage of the most experienced NASA and JPL scientists and engineers will be retiring in a few years .
As bad as this is, the situation is actually much worse: When these very experienced engineers and scientists retire, their tremendous collective wisdom will be gone from NASA and JPL forever!
- Almost 40% of JPL’s science and engineering workforce is currently eligible for retirement.
- In just four years, half of NASA’s entire workforce will be eligible. Many of these people are
- the most experienced project managers-the people who worked on Apollo (the mission to the
- Moon) and built the first space shuttle. Yet, we have few programs designed to bring their
- wisdom into our institutional memory. - Jeanne Holm, Chief Knowledge Architect, NASA
Conflicts Managing Learning between Programs and Projects
Like many organizations, NASA and JPL manage a number of projects and a series of related projects called programs. And like many organizations NASA and JPL are faced with a tremendous challenge: How best to manage knowledge so experiences gained from one project can be transfer to those who need it to make other projects a success? From the information presented in the case study, Knowledge Management & Learning at NASA & JPL, I believe there are several reasons for conflicts managing learning between programs and projects at NASA:
- Cycle time between knowledge gain and distribution from projects within a program and between programs and individual projects
- Lack of a pervasive, robust knowledge management tool
- Competitive culture versus culture of collaboration and mentorship
As stated by John Casani, “a senior manager with 40 years of project management experience brought back from retirement … to prevent mishaps …” problems related to knowledge transfer cycle time can be partially solved by “capturing more information on the fly …”. Certainly the information technology exist to do just that. But as the GAO discovered in their audit of NASA’s knowledge management database, Lessons Learned Information System (LLIS), the system was not widely used or relied upon by project managers. Instead formal and informal discussions were the favored methods of knowledge transfer at NASA. Why? Project managers gave various excuses to the GAO auditors for not utilizing LLIS. Of the three contributors preventing the effective transfer of knowledge between programs and projects, the competitive culture at NASA and JPL is in my opinion the root cause of these conflicts. The real problem, I believe is cultural: In a competitive culture where one agency or program competes against others for funding and accolades for their programs and projects, knowledge is at the core of competitive advantage. You do not give that away for free.
In fairness to the NASA workers, this environment of competition instead of collaboration is not unique to the agency. From a very early age we are all taught to compete and horde knowledge. Within a program, the problem is not as acute as most with valuable knowledge would be willing to share it with their colleagues to advance their program over those of others. Here the cultural problem to be overcome is the enjoyable tradition of “networking” where “war stories” are shared instead of the dry thankless task of data entry. Some organizations have successfully overcome this by changing incentive plans to reward those who share knowledge in the central repository of wisdom.
Project Implications for ‘Better, Faster, Cheaper’ (BFC)
After taking the rains at NASA, Daniel Goldin felt the organization was shellshocked and risk averse, after so many major disasters. His philosophy was to reduce the stakes so his project managers, scientists and engineers would be willing to push the envelop and innovate without fear of massive failure. Goldin’s philosophy was summarized in the slogan, ‘Better, Faster, Cheaper’ (BFC). Instead of a few large, decade long projects, NASA would instead have many smaller, two year projects as building blocks to major programs. As a result of BFC, the number of NASA projects mushroomed. This resulted in a shortage of tenured, knowledgeable managers and the promotion of junior staff ahead of a prudent schedule. In addition, the increase in projects meant the problems of NASA’s weak knowledge management were amplified. Staff shortages also meant experienced scientists and engineers were spread extremely thin.
An example was presented in Leonard and Kiron’s case study of one senior scientist that was dangerously overburdened.
- In 1999, this one scientist was simultaneously responsible for navigation, design,
- and operation of several Mars missions that were in different stages of development.
- He was the only person in charge of navigating the 1999 Mars Polar Lander as it
- approached Mars. At the same tune, he was supervising navigation system
- development for the 2001 Mars Odyssey and designing the navigation system for the
- 2003 Mars Exploration Rover mission. He was also expected to participate in peer
- reviews, write papers, and attend conferences and meetings - D. Leonard
BFC has not been the success it was envisioned to be because all aspects required for its proper implementation were not fully thought out or implemented. For example, how do you get the required knowledge from the head of an engineer working on one project at a contractor into the mind of a project manager working on a totally different project at the JPL? Under BFC as NASA exists today, instead of having a few large colossal failures, it will probably continue to have several smaller disasters.
What Does the Future Hold?
Going forward, in order for NASA to balance its mandate with fiscal responsibility and innovation, in the face of the impending retirement exodus of its most experienced knowledge workers, it needs a major cultural change. Then investments in IT and mentorship will bear fruit.