Knowledge Management at NASA

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KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT AT NASA
 
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency for United Stages, which is responsible for the Nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research. The knowledge Management (KM) at NASA is considered to be very important since the knowledge is the primary resource to create the competitive value for the organisation. In this respect, this report will describe the key knowledge areas along with some of tools based on IT and Socialisation for managing the areas. After this research it became clear that such an intelligent agency as NASA has quite a few flaws in knowledge management. For instance, Lessons Learned System seems to be a good idea to prevent from knowledge loss as people retire and take with them tacit knowledge, but for some reasons this valuable system is not working efficiently and is not used by the managers. The system is funded enormously, but is not doing the job. These tools, however, could not pursue the aim of its KM without the healthy knowledge sharing environment within the organisation. With incentives such as rewards and recognition for the best knowledge sharing staff, the members are encouraged to share their expertise with others and through establishing separate structural role such as Office of Chief Knowledge Officer; Knowledge management at NASA can be kept under control. After discussing the changes in regards with Knowledge Management over the last five years, the report will be concluded with a few recommendations for the future of NASA. 

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NASA KNOWLEDGE AREA

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is an agency that is responsible for all science and technology in the United States, and particularly specialises on airplanes and space. Its work is divided into three main categories: aeronautics, science and human exploration and operations. NASA’s knowledge area is quite wide. Satellites help ordinary people as well as scientists to gain more knowledge about space and Earth. Astronauts carry out scientific research in orbit. Also, space probes study the solar system, and beyond. New scientific developments improve air and space travel. Moreover, NASA is beginning a new program to send humans to the Moon, Mars and even beyond. Most importantly, along with just mentioned main functions, NASA shares what it learns, so that the obtained knowledge can make life better for people all over the world. For instance, any company can use NASA discoveries to create new “spinoff” products. However, NASA, in its own website, defines main knowledge areas as:

  • Aeronautics: manages research focused on meeting global demand for air mobility in ways that are more environmentally friendly and sustainable, while also embracing revolutionary technology from outside aviation.
  • Human Exploration and Operations: focuses on International Space Station operations, development of commercial spaceflight capabilities and human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
  • Science: explores the Earth, solar system and universe beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.
  • Space Technology: rapidly develops, innovates, demonstrates, and infuses revolutionary, high-payoff technologies that enable NASA’s future missions while providing economic benefit to the nation”.

NASA has been for a long time and was assembled from several existing federal agencies and organisations for the primary purpose to overrun Russia in space race in 1957. The cold war is long over, but NASA’s knowledge area remains the same for decades: space science, aeronautics.

IT TOOLS FOR KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT

NASA, even though, having so many intelligent people working for it, for many years and even now is still facing many embarrassing failures. So, in 2000, the United States Congress, which also funds NASA, directed the agency to develop appropriate knowledge management tools to reduce the possibility of miscarriages in future and to address impending retirements which were becoming serious problem as retirement also meant that people who had most valuable tacit knowledge were going to retire without sharing that knowledge with novices and younger managers. Up until 2002, most knowledge management tools at NASA were information technology systems. The development and implementation of these IT systems was sponsored by senior level CIO Lee Holcomb. NASA’s formal mechanism for sharing lessons learned across the agency was its Lessons Learned Information Systems and it contained lessons from the operation or design of particular missions and project elements. LLIS is one component of NASA’s larger knowledge management and sharing system, which includes the online NASA Engineering Network (NEN), NASA’s Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL) training, ASK Magazine, the Masters Forum, and the annual Project Management Challenge seminar. Several NASA centres maintained LLISs geared toward their own staff and project managers had to review on an ongoing basis. Leonard, Kiron (2002) found in their research that managers actually were reluctant sharing negative lessons for fear that they might not be viewed as good project managers, and that was little time for lessons learning to take place. In a 2002 report General Accounting Office revealed that there were significant inadequacies in the effectiveness of LLISs. The main causing concern finding was that managers do not routinely identify, collect, or share lessons. Instead, managers chose program reviews and informal discussions with colleagues as their primary sources for lessons learned. One of the reasons why managers were not using LLIS was because the lessons covered so many topics that it was difficult to search for an applicable lesson. Another important IT tool for managing knowledge is NASA’s website, www.nasa.gov, which, according to Leonard, Kiron (2002) encompasses more than 4 million Web pages, thousands of databases and electronic repositories, and millions of online reports. Having this huge amount of knowledge it was up to knowledge management team to make it useful to internal and external agency constituens. For internal use, Holm’s (CKO of NASA) team developed Inside JPL and inside NASA pages – customisable portals that staffers used to search efficiently for information they needed on an ongoing basis. These pages could be tailored to access project related information from all over NASA, universities, industries. In addition, several Web-based tools were being developed to facilitate collaboration among project team members who were spread across centers. In the past 5 years, even though, everybody agrees, that LLIS is not working efficiently, there have been no significant changes or improvements. Only talks and audit reports that NASA’s knowledge management IT tools have to be improved.

DESCRIPTION OF THE ORGANISATION’S USE OF SOCIALISATION-BASED TOOLS FOR MANAGING KNOWLEDGE

In a contemporary competitive society, discovering new tacit knowledge and sharing existing tacit knowledge are considered to be vital for an organisation in order to survive from severe competition. The tacit knowledge are often exploited through socialisation process, which means that the knowledge is created and synthesised by joint activities such as face to face meetings and brainstorming groups. In the case of NASA, in which the tacit knowledge is considered to be the primary resource of knowledge due to the nature of the organisation as explained earlier, there are three distinctive mechanisms facilitating socialisation to gain tacit knowledge, namely, Federal Knowledge Community, Knowledge sharing workshop and PaL (Pause and Learn). Recently, NASA has introduced a web-based knowledge management system called Knowledge Map. It is basically a virtual space that enables users to find the right information in short period of time by organizing the area of expertise and the knowledge from the expertise in systematic way using map. It shows how diverse the expert knowledge areas are possessed by NASA and the current projects are being introduced. The experts, however, could not just grow by themselves. Underneath of Knowledge Map, there are strong knowledge network and community of practice. These are the mechanisms using socialization to support Knowledge Management system. On March 28th 2014, NASA expert’s quarterly official meeting called Federal Knowledge Community (2014) was held at Pentagon. In this meeting, all the knowledge experts, over forty participants, from diverse knowledge areas voluntarily brought together and shared their knowledge not only by giving a presentation of specific area of expertise but also by informally mingling each other. It is certainly beneficial for NASA since engaging in such a meeting, the participants may obtain valuable knowledge and the host may also be able to gain a new wisdom relating to management of community. Another socialisation based mechanism that NASA uses for KM is Knowledge sharing workshops. In this workshop (Goddard, 2014), most of participants are the project managers who really want to acquire the practical knowledge to manage their project successfully and they come together in the workshop discussing the current project management lessons and experience. The interesting feature of this seminar is that the discussion is not recorded and the issue that could be talked in that is varies. It helps the participants actively engage in the discussion and learn from each other. The last but not the least socialisation based mechanism is PaL (Pause and Learn). It is a proven technique that enables team members to identify the issue facing to the team and resolve the problem by informally engaging in a group discussion. In the discussion, it is often led by an outside facilitator in a way that he/she leads an attention on 5 clear questions. What did we intend to do? What worked well, and why? What didn’t work well, why? What did we learn from this? And what should we change? By answering these questions among members, it bridges the knowledge gap between members and makes the team as a whole to see the problem from the different perspective. These socialisation based mechanisms are fundamental mechanisms that enhance NASA to be more innovative and effective in a way that it helps the members become more aware of the issues in their projects and they are one of the best mechanisms of sharing tacit knowledge. Socialisation based mechanisms in last five years have been improved. For example, remote collaboration through tools and team training has been implemented by developing Web-based collaborative environment.

KNOWLEDGE SHARING CLIMATE WITHIN THE ORGANISATION

Some activities at NASA centers have sought to find ways to encourage knowledge sharing. For example, scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center were monetarily rewarded if knowledge they capture and share are reused. However, even NASA recognises that rewards should be part of its initial priority are for knowledge management, it still has not yet initiated any agency wide incentives for knowledge sharing. Other than having the incentives, the factors that compose the knowledge sharing environment in NASA are the specific organizational role in Knowledge Management. In NASA, there is a separate department supporting KM, Goddard – Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer. In the official website for Goddard (2014), introduces itself as a responsible centre assuring NASA keeps its value in a learning organization. The major role of the department is to design, develop and deploy meaningful learning activities, so that the NASA personnel can benefit from and enable to develop themselves in achieving NASA’s strategic goal. The socialisation based tool that has presented previously is the main activities that were developed in the department. By having a specific department and developing the activities, NASA promotes the knowledge sharing environment into a practice. The clear vision of this department can be evident from the interview with Edward Rogers, (Michael 2009) the Chief Knowledge Officer for NASA. In his interview, he states that his view of successful KM is like a good pair of shoes, in a sense that, NASA has to find the way that KM system could fit in the particular needs for the organization and make it deliver the organization to better place in a competitive environment. In other words, it is crucial for Office of Chief Knowledge Management to focus on creating healthy environment that promotes knowledge sharing in order to support KM.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

NASA, as one of the world’s most authoritative organisations, has a rather healthy knowledge management system, but it still clearly needs improvement. According to our findings, the agency’s expensive IT knowledge sharing system is not working the way it should and definitely needs more attention. Perhaps, more developed incentives system would encourage employees to use LLIS’s more often and share their valuable tacit knowledge instead of taking it with themselves when retiring. However, only explicit, widespread support from top down will create the type of culture where knowledge sharing is commonplace. This type of encouragement has begun but yet to fully emerge, mainly because many NASA managers are not certain that knowledge loss is a crucial problem.

REFERENCES

  1. Charles S. 2014. Powered by Mission.Government Executive. Vol. 46, Issue 1
  2. Federal Knowledge Management Community, NASA, assessed 20 May 2014, <https://km.nasa.gov/14th-quarterly-federal-km-working-group-meeting/>
  3. Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, assessed 20 May 2014, <https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/PaLBrochre(1).pdf>
  4. Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, assessed 20 May 2014, <https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/organizations/OCKO/about/index.html>
  5. Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, Knowledge Sharing Workshops, assessed 20 May 2014, <https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/organizations/OCKO/workshops/index.html#.U4GdrPl_t8F>
  6. Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, Pause and Learn, assessed 20 May 2014, <https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/PaLBrochre(1).pdf>
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  9. Lengyel, D. M. Newman, J. S. 2010. Managing Risk on the Final Frontier. Defense AT&L. Vol. 39 Issue 3, Special section p46-50. 5p.
  10. Leonard D., Kiron D. 2002. Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Harvard Business school.
  11. Liang M., 2009, An Interview with Edward Rogers, NASAA¸ Goddard Space Flight Center, assessed 20 May 2014, <https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/pdf/471704main_KMDC-EWRinterview2009.pdf>
  12. Lipowitcz A. 2012. Is NASA’s knowledge management program obsolete? [ONLINE] Available at:https://gcn.com/Articles/2012/03/15/NASA-knowledge-management-IG.aspx. [Accessed 26 May 2014].
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Knowledge Management at NASA. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved October 7, 2022 , from
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