April 30, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 4
Message from the Academy Director
Learning in a Project-Based Organization
How does learning take place in a project-based organization like NASA?
The basic unit of work at NASA is the project. We organize in project teams in order to accomplish highly complex tasks that have discrete beginnings, middles, and ends. People join teams at different times during a project's life cycle to contribute expertise as needed, and when their work is done, they move on to new projects or assignments.
This model has many strengths that serve NASA well. First, it places the focus squarely on the end product, not the organization. The project team exists solely to complete the project: when it ends, the team dissolves. Second, it leads to a very customer-centric approach, which means close collaboration to determine requirements in order to design and build the right systems. Third, it enables teams to gather expertise from diverse disciplines—everything from thermal engineering to cost analysis to data management — during the project life cycle. These are all essential to our success.
There are also weaknesses that are inherent to project-based organizations. Project teams focus narrowly on their own objectives—a strength as noted above — but their ability to resolve complex problems also depends on the free flow of ideas and knowledge from others at NASA, international partners, industry, the scientific community, and academia. This requires an ability to look outward, which goes against the grain of a project team's basic orientation.
Second, no two NASA projects are exactly the same. Most of our spacecraft are one of a kind, which means that individual practitioners have to keep learning on each new project. The learning that takes place in a project team setting is also very dynamic. When problems arise, teams concentrate their resources, bring together the necessary expertise, and either solve the problem, mitigate it, or carry it forward as a risk. The learning that occurs among the team members is decentralized: the individuals move on to different projects, bringing their new experience and expertise with them. In this respect, it is unlike a functional organization that repeatedly performs routine tasks, where new knowledge can be incorporated into processes quickly and efficiently. Given the range and unique nature of our projects, most learning from any single project comes with caveats and qualifiers about the context in which it took place.
Given the nature of project teams and the dynamic settings in which they learn, organization-wide learning requires an approach that takes into account the resources and needs of the entire enterprise. A project academy is well-suited to perform this function because it has the ability to focus on the specific needs of the project community while maintaining strategic alignment with senior leadership, and, in NASA's case, external stakeholders and partners ranging from the Office of Management and Budget to the Project Management Institute to industry to international partners.
The Academy accomplishes this for NASA by addressing learning needs at three levels: individuals, teams, and the organization:
- We offer competency-based training, developmental assignments, and hands-on opportunities to help individual practitioners develop their skills at each level of their careers.
- Since most learning takes place within the project team, our best chance of facilitating project success is at the team level. We currently support over 100 project and engineering teams across NASA by offering a variety of tools and services: online assessments measuring team performance, workshops focusing on team effectiveness, technical life cycle support, and intensive coaching, mentoring, and consulting with expert practitioners.
- At the agency level, the Academy invests in knowledge sharing strategies that emphasize the power of telling stories through forums and publications in order to help create a community of practitioners who are reflective and geared toward sharing.
By focusing on individuals, teams, and the community as a whole, the Academy creates multiple "touch points" for professional development. In the process, individuals build their competencies skills, teams get the support they need in the field, and the agency matures as a learning organization. It is a flexible model that we will continue to adapt as the needs of NASA's workforce, projects, and stakeholders continue to evolve.