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October 1, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 9


Knowledge sharing is a critical pillar of the Academy’s professional development framework that is central to its efforts to build a community of reflective practitioners across NASA.

In a hard-nosed engineering culture like NASA, knowledge sharing sounds like the softest of soft skills. In reality, though, it is essence of how people learn to do their jobs. Acquiring knowledge is different than mastering information — otherwise, brain surgeons, auto mechanics, foreign language translators, and computer programmers would become experts through rote memorization. Knowledge doesn’t work that way.

Knowledge sharing happens all the time, whether we realize it or not. When we learn from colleagues on the job, that’s knowledge sharing. It is simply a part of life in a project-based environment. At the same time, one of the side effects of project work is tunnel vision. The singular focus necessary for project success makes it easy to lose sight of the larger project community. NASA’s technical workforce possesses an incredible richness of expertise in every conceivable discipline, but that expertise is distributed among ten field centers, four mission directorates, dozens of programs, and hundreds of projects. Lots of knowledge connections never get made simply because there is no organizing principle that makes it easy to access the depth that already exists within the agency.

As NASA designs and develops the most complex systems it has ever attempted, it faces a critical need to transfer knowledge and expertise from those who have done this kind of work before to those who are doing it now. The broad programmatic shifts in human space flight and the changing demographics of the workforce only make this more urgent.

The challenge of knowledge sharing is not a new one at NASA. After the 1999 failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the General Accountability Office, or GAO) did a survey of NASA’s lessons learned process and issued a report that called for a comprehensive knowledge sharing effort at NASA. GAO found that “NASA’s processes, procedures, and systems do not effectively capture and share lessons learned and therefore, NASA has no assurance that lessons are being applied towards future missions.”

The report recommended “that the NASA administrator strengthen the agency’s lessons learning processes and systems by…developing ways to broaden and implement mentoring and “storytelling” as additional mechanisms for lessons learning.”

Even before GAO issued its report, the Academy had begun to develop practices for knowledge sharing that would fulfill GAO’s recommendation. The Academy based its approach to knowledge sharing on three guiding principles:

  1. The practitioner knows best.
  2. It’s important to create a community of reflective practitioners.
  3. Storytelling provides the best medium for knowledge sharing.

The Academy focused its knowledge sharing efforts in two areas that would promote the use of stories: practitioner forums and publications. Today, these remain the core knowledge sharing activities. The Masters Forums and the Project Management Challenge are its two signature events, with the former offering opportunities for informal sharing among expert practitioners and the latter serving as an annual gathering of the agency-wide project community. Its publications give practitioners venues to document and share their stories, best practices, and lessons learned in ASK Magazine, the ASK the Academy e-newsletter, and case studies of NASA missions.

Learn more about the Academy’s knowledge sharing activities.

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