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Ask OCE — February 8, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 3

by Maarten Sierhuis, Ames Research Center


NASA projects are inherently collaborative efforts. There are no solo ventures. Many require the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals over the course of their life cycles. Anyone who tries to track all the moving pieces in a spaceflight project immediately runs up against the sheer complexity of it. The projects that will comprise the Vision for Exploration, complete with advanced moon walks and human flights to Mars, will only multiply this degree of difficulty.

Maarten Sierhuis has spent his career trying to model how people actually do their work in complex organizations. “One of the things I’ve been promoting is the notion of collaborative modeling.” Sierhuis, a Principal Investigator in the Intelligent Systems Division at Ames Research Center, develops software that created detailed simulations of the work processes that take place over the course of NASA projects.

How exactly does one model project work? Think of a Gantt chart, which is a static, two-dimensional model of a project schedule. Now imagine a schedule with a database that allows it to account for hundreds of people communicating together while doing thousands of discrete tasks, all of which are catalogued. Imagine that it also tracks all the information objects and artifacts that they’re using to perform their work. That’s one of the capabilities of Brahms, a software tool that Sierhuis has played a lead role in developing over the past decade. When deadlines, people, tasks, or object change, Brahms adapts its simulation.

The timeline output is just one of Brahms’s means of creating a model. It can also use the information it receives a project to create virtual reality simulations of work processes. These can be used to analyze and design organizations and operations, and develop training programs that re-create a work environment down to the last detail. Sierhuis has worked with the Digital Space Commons to integrate Brahms into 3-D virtual reality scenarios that can be adapted to simulate NASA Exploration work on Mars. A third way that Brahms can operate is as a communication facilitator among humans and robots, or intelligent agents. The Mars Desert Research Station, a project of the Mars Society, is currently using Brahms in the Utah desert on a daily basis to simulate communication between astronauts and robots on the surface of Mars.

Mars is a long way from New York, where Sierhuis began his efforts to understand work processes in the late 1980s. While working for NYNEX (later Verizon), he and his colleagues tried to understand and redesign the work processes for the phone company’s employees. Drawing on a methodology called Issue-Based Information System (IBIS), they began collecting data. “You do it just in terms of questions and answers. What’s your role? What are your work activities? Everybody can understand that.”

At the time, this information was not systematically catalogued in a usable way. “We were writing it down with a pencil and paper.” He and colleague Al Selvin began to employ Questmap, a software program that made information maps using the IBIS question-and-answer method. (See an example of an information map.) Together they developed the first version of Compendium, a more advanced tool that drew on Questmap’s strengths and added the capability of a searchable database. Versions later, Compendium is available as an open-source program through the Open University (UK).

Compendium can offer a useful way to practice knowledge management over the life cycle of a project. Sierhuis offers an example from his own work: “At every meeting we’d take notes, and then we’d tag (classify) them, and then have categories that we could search. It becomes a compendium of information about a project.”

He sees Compendium and Brahms as tools with many potential applications across NASA. A project is underway to use Brahms to simulate mission operations at Johnson Space Center. Another use has been the design of mission operations for the Mars Exploration Rover.

“We use this to bring a modeling approach to people who (ordinarily) don’t use this kind of tool.”


In This Issue

Message from the Chief Engineer

NASA in Washington: John Marburger’s Call for a Single LANDSAT Spacecraft (PDF)

This Week in NASA History: Space Shuttle Challenger

James Barrowman on Defining Requirements

Modeling the Way We Work

Stardust Returns, New Horizons Takes Off

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