May 28, 2010 — Vol. 3, Issue 5
Message from the Academy Director
NASA is undergoing a knowledge explosion—and not a moment too late.
When the Academy first began sponsoring knowledge sharing forums and publications in the late 1990s, there was a degree of skepticism in some corners of NASA about the purpose of these activities. In an engineering organization, how could stories enhance the probability of mission success?
The twin failures of the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter were a watershed moment that drove home the criticality of knowledge sharing for NASA. In the aftermath of these failures, the General Accounting Office (now the General Accountability Office) released a report in January 2002 recommending, among other things, that NASA develop ways to broaden and implement mentoring and storytelling as means of conveying lessons learned.
Since then there has been a veritable explosion of knowledge sharing efforts across the agency. The Academy just completed a comprehensive survey of technical workforce development across the agency, which found that all 10 centers use informal sharing and lessons learned sessions (e.g., Pause and Learn activities, after-action reviews, brown bag lunches, and "lunch'n'learn" sessions). Nine of ten centers have academic or research portals, and eight employ discipline or specialty network videos or case studies. Other knowledge sharing practices include: project team lessons learned workshops, comprehensive "knowledge capture" activities (e.g., Space Shuttle Main Engine and Ares I-X), the Office of the Chief Engineer's Joint Engineering Board, and the Academy's forums, publications, videos, and case studies. Technology is also a big part of knowledge sharing. All 10 centers use portals, wikis, social networks, or team micro-sites. Most also use discipline or specialty networking technology, blogging, YouTube, and social bookmarking sites.
In short, knowledge sharing has taken root broadly across the agency. This is how it should be. To paraphrase former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, all knowledge is local. At NASA, experts in specific disciplines are the keepers of a great deal of local knowledge. The role of the Academy is to help build an agency-wide community of reflective practitioners who establish a culture in which sharing is the norm. The Academy also plays the part of a facilitator, providing channels through its forums and publications to ensure that local knowledge can reach the broader community.
Knowledge sharing will only be more important in the years ahead as NASA pursues an aggressive research and technology agenda. One of the keys to innovation is finding new uses for technologies and processes that were originally developed for other purposes. Knowledge flows across the agency will be critical to those kinds of connections. The community that has grown across NASA in the past decade has its work cut out for it.