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Connecting Anywhere, Anytime: NASA’s Virtual Executive Summit
NASA conducted its annual Executive Summit the entire month of October 2012. The Executive Summit provided a forum whereby NASA executives could collaborate with each other, attend learning sessions, and have the opportunity to hear from NASA leadership on key strategic issues. In the spirit of NASA’s commitment to discovery, protection of our environment, and utilization of the latest technology, this year’s Executive Summit was entirely virtual, and by all accounts, a resounding success.

This experiment incorporated suggestions from last year’s participants, while taking the summit in a new, uncertain direction. Its success depended on everyone’s willingness to take that step and commit to the potential of a virtual summit. Ultimately, considerable planning and coordination resulted in a collaborative and interactive summit that engaged approximately 570 executives, 80 percent of whom participated in the virtual events.

Greg Schmidt, Deputy Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute, shared his appreciation of the new format. “Hearty congratulations to you and everyone on this team who accomplished such a great task! This is very much in line with Obama's executive order 13589, November 9, 2011 (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-11-15/pdf/2011-29683.pdf), which says in part “agencies are encouraged to devise strategic alternatives to Government travel, including local or technological alternatives, such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing.”

Some of the immediate benefits of the virtual summit include tremendous cost savings. Because executives did not travel to the summit, NASA saved about $750,000 in travel expenses. The summit also exposed executives to new technologies. During the month of October, executives could access the 2012 Virtual Executive Summit from a single launch page on the HR portal. In addition to the website, executives could participate by viewing and commenting on videos, participating in live sessions using Adobe Connect and by attending the one-day onsite at their Center. Executives could network with peers, pose questions to the knowledgeable virtual community, share ideas, and interact with senior leadership on challenging issues. Just as important as the exchange of information, the Virtual Executive Summit provided an opportunity for executives to become more knowledgeable about the technology they were using and its potential for use in facilitating future meetings and events.

Carol Carroll, Deputy Director for Science, NASA Ames Research Center, is optimistic about the use of virtual technology at NASA. “This has been a terrific way to communicate with the NASA SES [Senior Executive Service] corps. It was easy to use and informative. I think this could and should be used more often, for example, after the election in November and after the budget rollout in February. The corporate world regularly has video chats with their senior leaders to share information about important and timely topics throughout the year. I would encourage NASA to have these SES virtual meetings several times a year for specific topics of interest.”

One of the goals of the Virtual Summit was to take advantage of the technology that allowed for distance learning, messaging, and virtual interaction without it actually being the focus. Planners designed the websites for ease of use and accessibility in order to encourage participation and ensure that users have a good experience. Another consideration for designers is that technology in all its forms should be transparent so that participants can concentrate on the subject matter of the presentation without distractions. The Executive Summit website addressed these requirements by providing users with a home base for schedules, presentations, and technical support. Because the format was different this year, planners incorporated pre recorded howto sessions describing Adobe Connect, and live session content guidance to ensure that everyone was comfortable.

The online environment allowed flexibility in how, where, and when executives participated. For example, during the first two weeks in October, executives completed activities independently from anywhere and on their own time. When Administrator Bolden addressed executives on October 30, it was an interactive session using Adobe Connect. Each Center arranged a conference room that had a quality speakerphone, a computer with a quality Web camera, and projection equipment so that everyone could participate. One of the unexpected benefits of the virtual summit was realized during Hurricane Sandy when Headquarters was closed. The summit continued, and Assistant Administrator Lori Garver presented as scheduled from the safety of her home.

Planners credit the success of the Virtual Executive Summit to the concerted effort across Centers: The summit was successful to a large degree because both planners and executives embraced change and had the desire to learn and use new technology.