November 24, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 11
Six Questions for Steven Gonzalez
Johnson Space Center has a question: what would happen if we could tap into the expertise of the center’s employees to solve any one of the difficult challenges that NASA faces?
The answer will come from a six-month pilot called Project Blue Moon, which grew out of the joint efforts of the center’s Vision 2028 team and the Inclusion and Innovation Council engagement teams. Project Blue Moon aims to spark knowledge sharing across community boundaries and find innovation in unlikely places. Steven Gonzalez, Deputy in the Advanced Planning Office at Johnson Space Center (JSC), told ASK the Academy about their six-month experiment.
How did this project come about?
The Vision 2028 team was sponsored by the Advanced Planning Office at JSC. We are tasked by the Center Director to look out twenty years for the future direction of the center. We asked the next generation, the Gen Y-ers, who will be the future leaders of the center here 20 years from now, what they want the center to be in twenty years and what are the initial steps they would like to see to get there?
It turns out their vision of the future is a JSC that is open, collaborative, innovative, and on the cutting edge. One of the initial steps they want to see towards creating the future of JSC is an open and collaborative environment — something that they were used to in college, something they’re used to in all of the social media that they’re involved in. They want to see that as a centerpiece of the center.
Then they combined their efforts with the Center Director’s Inclusion and Innovation Council. That council created seven teams to look at how to make JSC more inclusive and more innovative. So they took members from the Vision 2028 team, combined them with new members from what they call “engagement teams,” and they met in January. One of the teams, the barrier analysis team, said that they wanted employees and the public to be able to openly collaborate with one another. They recommended creating an environment that allowed a community to come together to collaborate on challenges and problems, and be able to get solutions from different communities.
In March of this year we were given the funds to create this environment, to allow JSC and our sister centers to collaborate and to look for challenges that we’ve been stuck on and see if someone in another discipline, at another center may have already solved it, or by looking at it from a different perspective may find a new solution to something that we haven’t been able to solve.
What are the kinds of challenges or central issues the agency is wrestling with that this project will address?
We’ve got three categories of challenges that we’re hoping to put out there. One would be a technical challenge. For example, JPL may be having some challenges with some of their actuators, and they were hoping that the human space flight program may have had a similar challenge and may have already found a solution for the problem that they were having.
We’re also looking for process challenges. Someone might be stuck doing something and it’s taken them six months to do it. Does anyone have any ideas on how to cut this process down to a few weeks? Is there something we’re missing as far as why this thing is taking so long?
Then we’re hoping that from a programmatic standpoint there might be some challenges on a mission that is a few years down the road that they’re struggling with. Normally we tap into the engineers and operations expertise within a community. But the way that JSC and even the rest of the agency works, people start off in one community or one discipline, move to other places, but still keep up their skills, their expertise, and their engineering disciplines. They may have a solution that we’re not tapping into.
How does Blue Moon plan to tap and compile the expertise, knowledge, and wealth of ideas across NASA centers?
Right now we have an electronic environment located on a server that is accessible by the agency, but not accessible outside the agency. It has a simple interface with three buttons. One says “challenge,” where you can post a challenge on something that you’re struggling with, something that you want someone to have an insight about. For instance, someone has a lot of their information stored on Polaroid and they want to get out of that media, but they can’t find a good solution, so they go looking for one.
The second button is “solve.” If you have an idea to post, you click on that.
The third one is “learn.” If the challenge has been solved, you can go out there and see what someone else did or look at some of the other solutions that were proposed and if they were implemented or chosen.
The way the website works is that people can either post a challenge, solve, or they can vote on the solutions so that the community can [prioritize] those solutions that seem to have the most promise. Then the person that proposed the challenge can look at the top one that was rated and if that still doesn’t meet their needs they can go down and look at the other ones. That part was the easy part.
Trying to get a community to admit that it is struggling with something or doesn’t know something is a bit of a challenge. We have a culture and an organization of the best and brightest—we are problem solvers. Posting problems and solutions so everyone can see has been a bit of a culture change. There’s a cultural aspect that we’re trying to overcome, whereas the tool itself was the easy part.
How does Project Blue Moon differ from other agency-wide efforts to share knowledge and inspire collaboration across the centers?
In a couple of ways. When we first introduced this idea to some of the other centers, they were looking for us to create communities of practices. This one is specifically aimed at not trying to create communities of practice. We are trying to break down the walls between the communities. Someone in the aero discipline may have a solution for an electrical problem or someone in finance who used to be an engineer or tinker on the side with a lab, a workshop, or at home may have an engineering solution. In that way we are not trying to create communities, we are trying to facilitate multiple disciplines to be open to look at one another and see what the challenges are.
The second part is that it was meant to be a real-time knowledge, challenge, and solution capture as opposed to a knowledge capture of previous successes or previous accomplishments.
How does one get involved in Blue Moon?
Right now, the website is open to the NASA population. All that it takes is logging in with the NASA ID and password and you can start posting challenges. We are trying to start introducing it to the other centers or send out the link, but we want to populate it with more challenges before bringing it up fully.
If you had to provide an answer to the question the Blue Moon Project poses, what would your answer be? What would happen if we could tap into the expertise of the employees at JSC to solve problems?
I think that we’re going to be surprised by some of the solutions that we’ll find. I think by reaching out across the centers and having people look at our needs, our challenges from a different perspective will help us create the future in one giant leap as opposed to more of an incremental movement.
Read the JSC Advanced Planning Office blog.