ASK OCE — August 31, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 13
By Chris Scolese
From the earliest days of spaceflight, the civilian aerospace community has relied on cooperation among government, private industry, and universities. As a result, NASA often finds itself working with partner organizations in a variety of configurations.
NASA works in a collaborative environment. Our program and project teams routinely work with contractors, other U.S. government agencies, international organizations, and non-government institutions. These organizations are responsible for one aspect or another of a mission — from conducting a mission’s scientific investigation to designing an instrument or a spacecraft to providing subsystems to launching a spacecraft. We have learned over the decades that some types of partnerships work better than others, and we will continue to leverage those lessons in the future. These arrangements are invariably complex, however, and their success often hinges on requirements definition and communication.
At a fundamental level, requirements definition is itself a matter of communication. What capabilities does a spacecraft, subsystem, or instrument need to carry out its mission successfully? Relationships with external customers or vendors always benefit from clearly defined requirements. In reality, though, this type of clarity is an ideal that’s rarely met. Despite our best intentions, time is always short in the project formulation phase. “Requirements creep” is a common syndrome, and, generally speaking, it is the enemy of both project management and systems engineering. Experience has shown that constantly shifting requirements exacerbate the difficulties of working with outside organizations.
Communication with external organizations is a broader issue with implications beyond requirements definition. All organizations operate within different cultural contexts. At NASA we are responsible to the President, the Congress, and ultimately the public, whereas a corporation is responsible to its shareholders and a university is responsible to its board of overseers. Our culture is shaped in part by our accountability as a public organization. We operate under regulations that do not apply to corporations or universities, and our outside partners may not always be aware of the extent of these regulations. In these cases, strong communication can prevent misunderstandings or frustration.
An organization’s cultural context also strongly influences its communication style. An engineer or scientist at a university may be accustomed to great deal more autonomy and less oversight than is required to accomplish a space mission. Taking the time to understand the cultural context and communication style of an external organization is essential to managing the relationship.
The ambitious agenda of the Vision for Space Exploration will demand myriad partnerships between NASA and external organizations; we cannot accomplish this on our own. We will be well served if we take the time to understand the dynamics of cross-institutional cooperation at the outset.