March 28, 2012 Vol. 5, Issue 3
Like all large, knowledge-intensive organizations, NASA faces continuous challenges identifying, capturing, and sharing what it knows.
Knowledge is the coin of the realm at NASA. Need to understand something about engine cutoff sensors, the physiological impact of extended stays in low-Earth orbit, or how to drive a rover on Mars? That kind of specialized expertise resides within NASA, and often nowhere else in the world.
At the same time, to paraphrase science fiction writer William Gibson, NASA’s knowledge is not evenly distributed, and much of it is at risk of walking out the door. NASA is approaching a significant demographic shift: over half the workforce is retirement-eligible, and there’s a high likelihood that many senior employees will leave within five years.
The knowledge challenge also extends to NASA’s failures. Our mishaps, accidents, and anomalies yield hard-won lessons that are critical to understand. We use rigorous investigation methodologies such as root cause analysis to ensure that we determine why we made mistakes. Yet our track record of learning from these incidents has been unevenly distributed; we’ve done better in some instances than others.
Developing more consistent knowledge capability across the agency was part of what motivated the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), a Congressionally established advisory group, to recommend that NASA “establish a single focal point (a Chief Knowledge Officer) within the Agency to develop the policy and requirements necessary to integrate knowledge capture across programs, projects, and Centers.” ASAP acknowledged good work in this area at Johnson Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center, and also recommended that all centers and mission directorates consider establishing CKOs to “ensure standardization.”
In response to the ASAP recommendation, I was appointed NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer. In late February I convened a meeting of the agency’s knowledge community, and we took inventory of all the different knowledge services and activities taking place at various centers and mission directorates. Frankly, I was not fully aware of the quantity or quality of knowledge work going on across the agency. In the weeks and months ahead I will be writing more about the current state of knowledge services at NASA after our data collection effort has been fully vetted. Suffice it to say it is an impressive story that I look forward to sharing. ASK the Academy will also begin highlighting efforts at different NASA centers and mission directorates in a new regular feature called CKO Corner.
I will remain the director of the Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership as I assume the responsibilities of serving as NASA’s first CKO. This is a logical extension of the knowledge services that the Academy began providing as an agency-wide resource over a decade ago. I look forward to engaging deeply with the community of dedicated professionals that gathered last month to ensure that our technical workforce has the knowledge it needs to achieve mission success. As always, please feel free to contact me if you would like to share thoughts or ideas.