Managing Knowledge and Learning

Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Summary National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by Congress on October 1, 1958, in order for the United States to keep up with the technological advancements achieved from former Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik (1957). The Apollo Era-Mission had risen from the support of John F. Kennedy’s goal, which was “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. ” Prioritization at NASA evolved into the center’s motto of “Faster, Better, Cheaper” (FBC), which was mandated in the Goldin Era beginning in 1992.

NASA shifted priorities from: 1) performance, 2) schedule and 3) cost to 1) increase mission performance, 2) cut cost and 3) work force reduction. However, this reform was not as successful as planned. From 1992 and 2000, six of 16 FBC missions failed. To address concern of the impact of failed missions and impending retirements of many of the most experienced NASA employees, Congress enforced that the agency search for the solution to Knowledge Management (KM) and promoting learning initiatives at NASA-JPL.

NASA’s KM tools were mainly IT systems of Internet-based databases and portals for ease of lessons. The NASA KM crisis was attributed to the organization’s inability to document experiences of failures and successes of missions or projects; ultimately incapable of capturing the “experiential knowledge” from expert engineers and scientists. In addition, this lack in KM was due to “privatizing knowledge” and promoting creativity, that stemmed from NASA’s culture where competition among centers for projects and funding was the norm.

Several KM Initiatives were developed including project libraries for document and data management, developing standards, establishing databases to find experts, ask technical questions, and to capture history and legacy reviews. 1) What were the pros and cons of the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” model? How might outcomes (both positive and negative) of projects executed with this model impact NASA’s stakeholders, i. e. Congress and the general public? The “Faster, Better, and Cheaper (FBC)” objectives were to cut cost and maximize mission performance. There were several advantages of the FBC reform.

FBC allowed compressed development and launch schedules that lead to an increase in the number of missions. Mission time could be reduced from decades to a few years. The number of NASA projects increased from four to 40 under the FBC model. An increase in mission projects was thought to lead to additional discoveries so that NASA could gain further wisdom and space knowledge. FBC missions were changed from one big project to multiple smaller projects. Dividing the program into smaller projects helped to minimize the pressure and stress on the team if a mission failed.

Furthermore, one mission failure did not consequently lead to the failure of the entire program. FBC practice allowed senior managers more freedom to implement FBC the way they found fit which promoted creativity and autonomy among senior managers. FBC also reduced the cost of each mission and NASA’s overall budget. For example, the Mars program budget was reduced from one billion dollars to $260 million. There are numerous disadvantages of the FBC reform. Applying the FBC model could lead to more mission failures.

During the FBC era, there were 6 failed missions out of 16 FBC missions. Cost and schedule constraints, insufficient risk assessment, planning, and testing, underestimation of complexity and technology maturity, inattention of quality and safety, inadequate review processes, engineering, under-trained staff, poor team communication, and design errors all attributed to NASA’s mission failures. Projects conducted “faster” does not allow for adequate documentation, time for redlining the project, and recording lessons learned from one mission to the next.

This could result in repeated mistakes that could be avoided by future missions. Missions carried out faster do not allow time for mentorship and sharing of knowledge. Also, the term “better” was not properly defined and was open to interpretation, which may negatively impact maintaining standard procedures and processes. The results of the FBC vision could impact NASA’s stakeholders in several ways. The increase in smaller successful missions would alleviate the risk of one large failure, although any failures will have a negative impact on stakeholders.

Congress could be discouraged to provide support and funding for major space programs if they fail but might be more likely to fund smaller missions. The public could either lose or gain confidence, support, and belief in the space program depending on the magnitude of success or failure. FBC mission are less expensive which would decrease NASA’s budget and help satisfy both Congress and the general public by reducing the need for extra taxation by Congress and collection of taxes from the general public. 2) Why was the Mars Pathfinder project so successful?

Explain how Anthony Spears management style impacted future missions. Project management was the key to success of the Mars Pathfinder project. It began as an experiment to test the validity of the FBC reform mandated in 1992 when Daniel Goldin was assigned as the new administrator of NASA. A clear and specific plan for the Pathfinder mission was laid out in the beginning and followed through until the end. Analogous to the success of Cisco’s ERP implementation, Anthony Spears, an excellent manager and thought leader with years of experience at NASA, gained the support of top management and the JPL institution (Spears, 1999).

Spears developed a unique balance of an advisory committee of experts to support and guide the difficult project, while he recruited talented, yet naive, energetic youngster’s to do what some more experienced people thought impossible. As Spears writes in his lessons learned report it was “…a blend of bright, ambitious youth and scarred old timers, each challenged and empowered, all working each issue together… ” (1999). Together, they created a team that bonded and worked together successfully.

Spears’ goal was not only the success of the Pathfinder project, but of the FBC program success, unlike the vision of future project managers. The success of Pathfinder did not translate well in future FBC missions. Risk management and testing were important to the Mars Pathfinder success. While the Mars Pathfinder team worked together successfully, the younger players went on to think they were great project managers themselves, but still hadn’t learned enough to manage their next missions successfully.

In future FBC projects, some reasons for failure were poor team communication, inadequate or under-trained staff or insufficient testing in 70% of missions and insufficient risk assessment and planning on 86% of missions (exhibit 4). 3) One of the major issues in this case is the retirements of experts. Why is this a problem for NASA? Would it be less of a problem in a different type of organization? Suggest immediate steps that NASA could take to mitigate the problem. Explain your choices.

By 2006 half of NASA’s workforce was eligible for retirement which could lead to a major loss of knowledge, especially tacit information, diminishing the collective wisdom of the organization. A senior manager at NASA states, “we have no formal process for transferring knowledge” from thought leaders to new managers and IT systems had not yet been sufficient in transferring “experiential knowledge” to the younger generation. Unfortunately, this would be true in many organizations unless they had sufficient knowledge management systems in place and a culture where sharing knowledge was valued and encouraged.

In order to mitigate the problem of losing their knowledge base, NASA not only needs to continue to implement their KM strategy, but truly change the culture. Experienced project leaders and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), such as design engineers, should openly share their knowledge and not just when asked for it. I support several of the planned KM initiatives such as the capture of information by improving documentation, development of an enterprise web-based portal, and the Knowledge Sharing Initiative (KSI) aimed at changing the companies’ culture.

In addition to these activities, an exit strategy could be developed for retiring employees where they must follow standard procedures for employing case-based reasoning in an online database employing a searchable classification system. Additional knowledge could be disseminated by those eligible through training sessions. A reward system should be coupled to these exit requirements and could be increased if the employee decides to be available in the Expert Connections directory of SME’s that could be contacted for support after they leave.

New positions might need to be created for dedicated knowledge managers such as Chief knowledge officers. It’s also possible that NASA could obtain some replacement of lost experts by collaborating with space programs in other countries. Collecting the information from experts must be coupled with management support of a corporate wide schema to store the data, methods of dissemination, and apply the information to ultimately make better decisions on projects that involve risking people’s lives. 4) Jean Holm had two options she could choose from: 1) upgrade the IT systems or, 2) change the culture.

Which would you choose and why? Is there a third option? Explain your answer. In order for Holm’s to truly have a successful knowledge management system in place, implementation of a hybrid system should be in place; enforcing both upgrade to IT systems occurring simultaneously with changing the private culture into a shared one. Integration of both, changing the culture and IT upgrades will be a lengthy process so it would be critical to first strategically plan for cultivating and managing formal processes for knowledge transfers.

Implementing formal processes such as required protocols, reports, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and work instructions for each mission or project should be enforced from every high-level management as it might help with the KM transfer crisis. Once every item has been completed by the high-level management it would be placed into the appropriate IT systems database in conjunction with the integration of the required knowledge management video synopsis from experienced engineers and scientist who exit the centers.

Curriculums would be in place with learning modules with specific need encapsulating these protocols, reports, SOPs, work instructions and video synopsis would then be posted on the intranet, ready for the potential novice engineers and scientists entering the NASA work force; making the system more enriched and meaningful. 5) President Obama is implementing changes to NASA’s charter, which will create new ways of funding/executing projects than NASA is used to. Do a little online research. Do you agree or disagree in this change of direction? Explain. Caution; this is not to be addressed as a political issue) The Obama administration’s new NASA charter includes a couple of key parts: A) In February 2010, the Obama administration canceled the Constellation Program, which was started by former President George W. Bush’s administration in 2004. This program aimed to put US astronauts back on the moon by 2020, for the first time since the final Apollo mission. B) In April 2010, Obama proposed increasing NASA’s overall budget by about $6 billion over five years and shifting NASA’s aim for manned space program to Mars (from the moon).

By the mid 2030s, “I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And landing on Mars will follow,” he said. C) He also challenged the commercial space industry to take up the routine tasks that NASA would abandon – such as ferrying astronauts to and from the space station. I do not agree with him on the part A and Part B of the new charter. The Constellation Program is already 5 year old, and has spent $9. 1 billion.

It has already made significant progress and will help America maintaining its space leadership position over Russia and China. On the other hand, I think that it will set a foundation for manned space mission to Mars. Obama’s vision of manned mission to Mars by mid-2030 does not seem realistic to me as he has not talked about its technology feasibility. However, I do agree with his plan’s Part C. I think that it will significantly reduce the cost for transporting people and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit, and might induce the rise of a true space economy.