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Cross Directorate Forum Encourages "Useful Ignorance"
Sarah Crecelius wants to get people talking — and not just at each other.


Keith Belvin, chief technologist at NASA's Langley Research Center, probably answers that question best with a question of his own: "Have you ever been to a technical conference and seen somebody from your center — maybe even from your branch — giving a paper, and you had no idea they were doing that work?"

CDF, Donner Grigsby.

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Donner Grigsby of the Flight Projects Directorate discussed the challenges NASA Langley faces in improving cross-organization collaboration Nov. 29 at the Cross Directorate Forum. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

Crecelius, an outreach coordinator at the Climate Science Branch, not only saw that problem, she decided to do something about it.

That something was to figure out a way to combine a collaborative, networking-type event with something more formal and instructive, like a tech briefing.

"I wanted to bridge the gap," she said, "and make an event in which participants were presented to, but then also got to participate and work in an organized fashion off of the motivation, innovation and collaboration generated from what they just heard."

Crecelius first pitched her idea, called the Cross Directorate Forum (CDF), in February during a Moving Your Ideas Forward class here on Center.

It went over like hotcakes, eventually earning funding from the Creativity and Innovation program.

On Nov. 29, the CDF finally became reality as Crecelius stood in front of an audience of invitees at the Reid Conference Center and kicked off the inaugural forum — a "beta event," she says — by laying out the three main goals of the program:

  • To encourage collaboration between LaRC directorates and further unify the workforce

  • To introduce and solicit feedback on new ideas

  • To connect organizations with needs to organizations with creative solutions

Or, as Belvin, an advisor to the CDF, put it a few minutes later: "This is a chance to bring together the wisdom of crowds."

The format of the CDF is relatively simple. Crecelius and the Forum Committee (Jonathan Rathsam from the Structural Acoustics Branch, Eileen Nelson from the Office of Strategic Analysis, Communications and Business Development, and Martin Waszak from the Office of Center Chief Technologist) decided to split the event up into two one-hour segments.

In the first hour, three speakers get 20 minutes each to address a challenge within their realm of expertise. During the second hour, everyone breaks up into discussion groups by topic, which allows participants to ask questions and contribute ideas to the challenge that most interested them. The groups work in 20-minute segments. After 20 minutes, participants have the opportunity to stick with the discussion group they're in or switch to another one.

Due to illness, only two speakers were available for the Nov. 29 CDF. Dave MacDonnell of the Atmospheric Composition Branch talked about the logistics of payloads and future challenges related to payloads. And Donner Grigsby of the Flight Projects Directorate discussed the very issue the CDF was created to address: the challenges NASA Langley faces in improving cross-organization collaboration.

According to Grigsby, respect is at the heart of effective collaboration.

"If you put smart people willing to work together who respect each other," he said, "you can put people on the moon."

He also thinks it's important to ask questions, which he illustrated with an anecdote about a young technician, who, on his first day at NASA Langley in the 1970s, attended a discussion of metals. During a presentation about what metal NASA might make its next rocket out of, the young technician asked, "Why does it have to be a metal?"

"Eighteen months later we had the shuttle tiles," said Grigsby.

Before the CDF split up into group discussions, Anna-Maria McGowan of the Aeronautics Research Directorate, and also a CDF advisor, echoed Grigsby's sentiment. She encouraged participants to ask questions — even if they might sound uniformed.

"Ignorance is usable," she said.

In MacDonnell's breakout session, one of the participants claimed "ignorance" before asking if it might be possible to guide an orbiting satellite around space debris in real time using CubeSats — a technology MacDonnell mentioned in his talk.

The simple answer was no, but MacDonnell's subsequent explanation gave everyone in the room a clearer understanding of why satellites are put into orbits that avoid debris fields completely.

That's exactly the kind of information exchange Crecelius was hoping the forums would spark. And her overall impressions of first forum were very positive. According to her, all those in attendance said they'd return for another CDF event.

"We had a great turnout," she said, "and the feedback was beyond helpful to drive this program forward and focus on the next steps."

Crecelius isn't the only one thinking about moving forward with the CDF. McGowan has high hopes for it, too.

"The benefits of a forum like this will not be likely immediate," she said, "but they can be profound because of the ideas we're generating."

By: Joe Atkinson

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