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April 3, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 3


We asked roughly seventy senior practitioners who attended the Academys April 2007 Masters Forum to answer the question, “How do you learn to do your job?” Their answers provided a wealth of insight about learning at NASA.

Individual and team learning is central to the work of the Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership (APPEL). The Academy supports NASA’s mission by promoting individual and team excellence in program/project management and engineering through the application of learning strategies, methods, models, and tools. To facilitate learning across all technical disciplines and career levels, it has developed a multifaceted approach that addresses the needs of individual practitioners as well as program/project teams.

So how do people learn at NASA? In order to address that question, it’s necessary to identify the context for learning at NASA. The basic unit of work at NASA, as in most technical organizations today, is the project. The agency distributes the vast majority of its multi-billion dollar budget to its mission directorates to fund programs, which in turn fund projects.

NASA projects are characterized by high degrees of organizational and technical complexity:

Organizational — Projects typically involve multiple organizations, which may include contractors, universities, and international partners. This requires outstanding communication and strong systems engineering capability to ensure successful integration.

Technical — Systems today require complex arrangements of technologies. This is complicated by the fact that NASA usually builds “firsts” and “onlies” — there are rarely, if ever, opportunities to refine a design once it goes into production. These systems also fly in harsh space environments with lots of unknowns, making it very difficult to predict how they will perform.

In short, the work of NASA takes place within a project-based context in which systems complexity is increasing. Long-term mission success requires mature capability in project management and systems engineering across the agency.

When we asked our group of seventy master practitioners how they learn, some key themes emerged:

  • Education and formal training are critical, but together they only comprise a small percentage of what an individual needs to know. Some practitioners estimated that 90% of learning takes place on the job, which is roughly consistent with the conclusions of academic experts who have studied this question. (Estimates typically range from 80-90%.) Throughout an individual’s career, the importance of education diminishes as experience in the workplace forms the basis of job-specific expertise.
  • Informal learning happens all the time. Professional experience doesn’t stop when we step away from the desk or out of a meeting. Discussions with colleagues over lunch or coffee are part of how we learn on the job.
  • Learning from mistakes is critical. Mistakes are an inevitable. Learning from them demands that we remain open to their lessons. As Dr. Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, wrote in Success through Failure, “The failures always teach us more than the successes about the design of things. And thus the failures often lead to redesigns — to new, improved things.”
  • There’s no substitute for personal motivation. Top practitioners are usually intrinsically motivated to seek out professional development opportunities — whether in the form of courses, work assignments, or mentoring relationships. Like top performers who train relentlessly, the best of the best develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities simply because they see continuous learning as part of the job.

The Academy recognizes the importance of on-the-job learning experiences. It helps field centers establish professional development programs that foster those experiences (such as the Ames Project Excellence program and the Goddard Systems Engineering Education Development program), and encourages all members of the technical workforce to consult with supervisors and managers to identify appropriate, informal on-the-job learning experiences as part of their comprehensive career development.

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