November 24, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 11
Message from the Academy Director
Knowledge and Projects
In a project environment, knowledge is not just a matter of what you know.
Knowledge plays a different role in a project-based organization than it does in the world of high finance. On Wall Street, Sir Francis Bacon's axiom holds true: knowledge is power. Timing and secrecy are paramount. For example, understanding the specifics of a firm’s breakthrough innovation before others have access to the same information can make you rich. Who you know is everything. Insider trading is illegal for a reason.
At NASA, our relationship to knowledge is shaped by different incentives. Knowledge is only valuable to the extent that it helps us succeed at complex projects and missions. Given the nature of our work as a government agency, the lack of a traditional market-based profit motive, and the fact that most of our missions are one of a kind, we generally don't benefit from hoarding what we know.
The need for highly specialized knowledge leads us to who we know: talent. Getting the right people with the right knowledge at the right time in a project’s lifecycle is one of a project manager’s critical roles. Building a team that has the necessary knowledge or the means of accessing it is as important as getting the requirements right; one without the other is useless.
Knowledge at NASA has always depended on people. An Academy case study
recounted the difficulty that the Viking project had in developing the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS) that would do the first-ever soil sample analysis on the surface of Mars. Former NASA executive Al Diaz was the chief engineer for the GCMS at the time, and he and the engineering team ran up against a thorny problem with electrical high-voltage arcing, which would ruin the instrument. Fixing this called for developing an epoxy-like compound to insulate the circuitry from the conditions that made the instrument susceptible to arcing. After asking around, Diaz and Deputy Project Manager Gus Guastaferro discovered that a private industry contractor working for the Department of Defense had encountered this same issue with its own technology. While the contractor could not divulge the process to NASA, a contact there told Diaz and Guastaferro to send him the component, and he would take care of the problem. Sure enough, the component returned with the problem solved. The key to gaining critical knowledge was "who," not "what."
At NASA our ability to share knowledge effectively ensures the long-term sustainability of the agency. Great designs live on through heritage hardware for generations, but as they get passed down, the context and rationale for decisions and design choices tends to get lost. This is why the personal stories of practitioners are essential. We cannot anticipate when these stories will be critically relevant, but we do know that without them, the knowledge is gone. In a world where we’re increasingly asked to do more with fewer resources, these are losses we cannot afford.