"The Board concludes that NASA's current organization
does not provide effective checks and balances, does
not have an independent safety program, and has not
demonstrated the characteristics of a learning organization."
Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report
In May 2003, Goddard Space Flight Center recruited a Knowledge
Management Architect to apply additional focus to the integrated
management of the center's knowledge assets in particular,
its forty-seven years of experience-based wisdom in managing
space flight projects. In August of that year, the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) released its final report
calling for NASA to act more like a learning organization.
As Knowledge Architect and Director of the Office of Mission
Success at Goddard, we believed that the two challenges of
integrating knowledge management and creating a learning organization
were intertwined and must be addressed together. This is the
story of how we are addressing these twin challenges at Goddard.
Academic literature suggests that a learning organization
knows how to retain knowledge, appreciates the value of sharing
collective knowledge, and grows more knowledgeable with each
activity it performs. Knowledge management literature tells
us that the core of an organization's knowledge resides in
the work units and projects where it is being generated, not
in a centralized repository. The key to managing knowledge
is not to extract it from its origins but to facilitate its
use both at its source and within communities of practice
across the organization.2 With these ideas as starting
points, we set out to design an approach to improve Goddard's
performance as a learning organization while improving the
way we managed our knowledge.
We started by looking at what was already happening in the
Agency. There are many activities called "knowledge management"
and dozens of tools and databases in use. Many of these tools
seemed to offer some useful efficiency gains by automating
activities, keeping records, controlling, and, in a limited
way, searching documents. As we looked deeper, we concluded
that, to be effective, knowledge management must go beyond
simply getting the right information to the right people at
the right time. Focusing solely on knowledge efficiency concerns
would not necessarily create a healthy organizational learning
environment and might, in fact, hinder some types of collaborative
NASA's knowledge management efforts prior to Columbia tended
to focus on providing information technology tools with an
emphasis on capturing knowledge from workers for the organization
as opposed to facilitating knowledge sharing among workers.
In line with other organizations (Army, World Bank, and aerospace
industry), we emphasized that the core of Goddard knowledge
resides in the engineering work units and projects where it
is being generated. Therefore, knowledge management should
help Goddard project teams, work units, and other groups behave
and function as parts of a learning organization, generating,
sharing, using, and preserving their own knowledge. The divisions
and other work units at Goddard are the primary owners and
holders of their knowledge. Goddard's plan is designed to
help put practices in place that will facilitate the flow
of knowledge and help build the local learning loops that
characterize a learning organization.3 We tried
to apply these lessons learned about knowledge management
at Goddard to achieve meaningful change toward the goal of
becoming a better learning organization.
The Goddard System of Learning Practices
Lessons from the field of strategic human resource management
told us that we would need a coordinated system of organizational
practices, not a single process or application.4
We also needed a representation of a learning architecture
to support communication and understanding of the concept
among project teams. The learning architecture is evolving
into a complex, integrated map of Goddard mission success
processes, but we nevertheless wanted a concept that would
fit on one page, could be represented in a picture, and would
make sense to any project manager in less than five minutes.
After months of iterations and discussions with project participants,
we settled on six practices that we incorporated into a learning-loop
diagram (see figure on page 39). The architecture is designed
to avoid short- term, suboptimal solutions based on efficiency
models, address the three characteristics of a learning organization,
and build a more reliable and sustainable organizational system.
The next step was to get these six practices embedded in the
Goddard project life cycle.
Practice 1: Pause and Learn (PAL)
The Pause and Learn (PAL) process is the critical foundation
for learning from projects. PALs are participant discussions
of what went right and wrong and what lessons the experience
taught. Experience from the Army tells us PALs should occur
after major events and milestones. 5 They are valuable
because data collected close to the event eliminates the bias
of hindsight. The material generated belongs first and foremost
to the team, but generally applicable lessons and insights
should flow to other projects. The first PAL sessions we did
were with the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite/Polar
Operational Environmental Satellite Program. With multiple
instruments on each spacecraft, a number of Source Evaluation
Boards (SEB) were needed to evaluate each instrument proposal.
A PAL we conducted helped one SEB team learn from their own
challenging experience and provided practical wisdom to other
Practice 2: Knowledge Sharing Workshops
Many science, technical, and engineering seminars and lectures
are given at Goddard as a matter of course. These are essential
elements of a continuous learning culture. The Knowledge Sharing
Workshops are intended to augment those activities with discussions
of project management lessons rather than technical challenges
and trades. Using a panel construct helps diffuse the individual
focus without losing the personal story aspect of the workshop.
At each workshop, senior project leaders share their personal
insights, what they learned, and what they might do differently
based on their recent project experience. These workshops
are attended by emerging project leaders at Goddard who want
to acquire the practical wisdom necessary to succeed as project
managers. To encourage open sharing, these sessions are not
recorded. The emphasis on conversation instead of slides and
reports frees panelists to bring up even sensitive or unresolved
Practice 3: Case Studies
To build organizational learning capacity for project management,
the context provided by project stories must be brought into
the knowledge management and learning system. A case study
is the primary vehicle to do this. Case studies allow key
players to present material, reflect on project management
insights, and share contextual knowledge in a meaningful way.
In a sense, they are constructed opportunities for fostering
conversations. Participants often learn details of other projects
or events that they did not know of beyond headlines. They
also get to meet the people who were intimately involved with
those events and to think through the decisions those people
had to make at the time. In other words, they get the benefit
of learning from the decision-making process itself, rather
than just hearing filtered, after-the-fact explanations. Finally,
hearing the story from those who experienced it builds trust,
opens relationships, and fosters a sharing environment.
One of our first case studies was on the Vegetation Canopy
Lidar project at Goddard that was terminated in June 2002.
The case has been used internally at Goddard and twice at
the Project Management Challenge conferences in 2004 and 2005.
It is also being used by contractors for training outside
Practice 4: Common Lessons Learned
A diverse panel of experts is periodically convened to review
all cases from the past year, looking for similarities and
trends. Patterns of behavior that increase risk or the likelihood
of failure are identified. Strengths and competencies that
could be emulated are also called out. Their assessment is
integrated with many other performance and risk indicators
for appropriate corrective and preventative actions, including
incorporation into processes, rules, and training.
Practice 5: GOLD Rules
The GOLD Rules are meant to reflect Goddard's wisdom in the
design, development, verification, and operation of flight
systems. Collected primarily from engineering organizations,
they are in essence the best design practices written down.
Links are being built from the rules to standards, lessons
learned, and case studies so users of the rules can access
their context their origin, intent, and sphere of effect.
This allows project personnel to more accurately assess the
appropriateness and applicability of the rule to their project
and helps convey the embedded wisdom of the rule, not just
the sterile technical specification captured in the rule set
itself. It is essential that users of the rule do not stop
thinking about the practice to which the rule applies. The
learning context surrounding the rule enables users to continue
to think creatively instead of blindly following rules and
inviting possible unintended consequences. Where waivers are
sought, the provided context supports a healthy risk discussion
to evaluate the implications of granting a waiver or allowing
for a deviation.
Practice 6: The Road to Mission Success
The training of all members of extended project teams is
crucial to the future success of Goddard. Goddard is taking
an aggressive approach to ensure its project leaders, line
managers, scientists, engineers, resource analysts, and other
professionals have the fundamental skills and the collective
wisdom of experienced leaders available to them. We also need
to ensure that all employees appreciate the NASA/Goddard legacy
and fully understand the way we do business at Goddard and
our expectations for safety and mission success. The center
has developed a comprehensive series of two-day workshops
called the "Road to Mission Success" that will instill the
requisite NASA core values and wisdom embedded in cases, PALs,
common lessons, and workshops into future Goddard leaders.
Senior managers are involved in delivering course cases. The
series will become an integral component, and perhaps the
capstone, of many leadership training programs across the
center and will provide a common, consistent exposure to how
the center functions and achieves mission success.
Progress So Far
Goddard has made tremendous progress in building an effective
learning organization and responding to the challenges facing
NASA in a post-Columbia environment. To succeed in the long
term, we must continue to support and reinforce learning behavior
that enhances mission success across projects while investing
in human capital strategies that assure sustainability in
the future. Accomplishing these goals requires monitoring
the health of teams, continuously integrating work processes,
and facilitating knowledge sharing within the organization.
The knowledge management reliability problem is how to ensure
that engineers bring the line organization's full knowledge,
not just their own individual knowledge, to bear on each project.
Project outcome should depend less on which engineer is assigned
to the project than on the accessibility of the organization's
collective expertise. A lack of sharing at the branch level
could result in an inability to deliver reliable expertise
to projects. Anecdotal evidence indicates this is not an insignificant
issue. Experienced project managers relate stories of how
important it is to fight to get the right people on the team,
tacitly acknowledging that the knowledge and expertise they
need for the project are "owned" by particular individuals.
Clearly NASA is concerned about losing expertise as people
retire, but we need to build a system that does not depend
on the "expert guru" model and instead relies on a shared
knowledge community that does not retire but evolves with
time. The knowledge management challenge regarding human talent
is not how to capture knowledge from people as they leave
the organization but how to build learning into all that they
do while they are here, so when they are ready to leave, most
of their knowledge is embedded in the organization, people,
processes, and policies that remain. Such a system will both
sustain knowledge and produce more reliable results. This
is the goal of Goddard's learning practices system.
Knowledge sharing behavior attracts bright people to organizations.
Intellectually curious people know that they have the best
chance of being stimulated, creating new knowledge, and participating
in exciting discoveries where a team or community of like-minded
thinkers are engaged in open and honest sharing of their ideas,
insights, and experiments.
Goddard wants to continue to attract these people to build
on the competencies that have characterized the center for
forty-seven years. Though much remains to be done, we have
embarked on an ambitious plan to help us function more like
a learning organization and in so doing achieve mission success.
Click to expand image
- Richard Day is Director of Mission Success at the Goddard
Space Flight Center.
- Edward Rogers is the Knowledge Management Architect at
the Goddard Space Flight Center.
1. Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Vol. 1 (Washington,
D.C.: Government Printing Office, August 2003).
2. Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning
and Identity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
3. P. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (Boston: Harvard Business
School Press, 1990).
4. J. Barney and P. Wright, On becoming a strategic partner:
The role of human resources in gaining competitive advantage,
Human Resource Management 37(1) (1998): 31-46.
5. E. Rogers and J. Milam, Pausing for Learning, IEEE Aerospace
Conference Proceedings (March 2005).
6. T. Davenport and L. Prusak, Working Knowledge (Boston:
Harvard Business School Press, 1998).