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Knowledge Community Corner: History Division’s Stephen Garber

NASA History Division’s Stephen Garber.

Photo Credit: NASA

Stephen Garber discusses knowledge sharing through the NASA History Division.

Stephen Garber is a Historian in the NASA History Division and serves as the Knowledge Services Lead. Garber has worked in the Department of Defense (DOD) Space Policy Office, the Congressional Research Service, and NASA’s Legislative Affairs Office. He has a bachelor’s degree in politics from Brandeis University, a master’s in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, and a master’s in science and technology studies from Virginia Tech. He has done research and writing on topics such as orbital debris, NASA’s organizational culture, the design of the space shuttle, the Soviet Buran Space Shuttle, and a policy history of NASA’s Decadal Planning Team and President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration.

How would you characterize the importance of knowledge management from the perspective of a NASA Historian?

It’s essential to what historians do, just as history is essential to what everybody does in his or her daily life. When I give presentations about the role of the History Division, I make the case that everybody uses history whether or not it’s conscious. So it’s best if you can actively realize what you’re doing so that you can more fully utilize the knowledge that other people have accrued before you.

There are lots of quotes about this, such as, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ Then there’s the pseudo-Mark Twain quote: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ I also put a quote on my door from someone who made it up for his email signature block: ‘Everything is unprecedented if you don’t study history.’

I think history and the knowledge it imparts is really important for everybody. When I started working in the History Division, I quickly learned that there’s usually a pre-history to whatever subject you’re studying. There are always people who have trod at least similar, if not the same, ground before and it’s worthwhile to know about that so you can build on what other people have learned, instead of reinventing the wheel.

What are some practical ways the History Division contributes to overcoming knowledge gaps?

Over time we in the History Division get a lot of the same kinds of questions. For example, we seem to get lots of folks who are interested in the public relations aspects of Project Apollo. For a while I would get impatient and say to myself, ‘Oh, no. Not another question about the glory days of Apollo. I’m tired of that question. I’ve heard it a million times already. Let’s talk about something else.’

So I created a list of topics I would like to see people research or write about. Sometimes I pull it out when a student or other researcher wants to write about something new. Or sometimes people are looking for longer studies on something they’re curious about. Looking at those gaps in our knowledge is helpful, especially for somebody who’s not so familiar with the overall contours of NASA history. Looking at the gaps is one quick way to see what could be studied or — on the flip side — what has already been studied.

If you look at that list you see all sorts of subjects, and you get a sense of what could be learned from studying a particular topic. For example, a couple of years ago I added a topic of when to ‘fish or cut bait.’ That is, when is it time for a project manager to decide that a project has spent too much money, is too far behind schedule, and has missed too many technical milestones and thus should be cancelled? Alternatively, when is it appropriate to say, ‘We need more money and we need to re-baseline and get this done?’ How do you make those decisions? There’s probably project management or risk management literature on this subject, but I haven’t seen anybody cover this topic specifically for NASA history. So, I would be curious to see that, and I think that would be very relevant for a lot of managers right now. That’s just one example of a knowledge gap that could be filled.

My admittedly highly arbitrary ‘wish list’ of different research topics provides ‘tastings,’ if you will, of different areas where it might be useful to do more research to increase our knowledge. Such potential future research would complement the tons of materials – books, web pages, papers and archival resources and references – we already have on a lot of subjects.

Are there any successful knowledge efforts in your organization that you’d like to highlight?

I’m very proud of the 200-odd books and monographs that our office has published over the years. Plus all the other efforts we do really contribute to people within and outside the agency learning about a whole host of history of science, history of technology, and history of management issues that relate to more than NASA itself. But these NASA stories can be case studies for other larger contexts.

What are some examples of tangible benefits of knowledge sharing?

When I worked at the Pentagon, my predecessor was discussing a subject portfolio he was preparing to hand over to me. When I asked him for electronic copies of some memos, he replied they were on the shared drive. My initial reaction was ‘OK, but where exactly?’ It turned out that the shared drive was so well organized that it was intuitive for me to find what I was looking for. DOD rotates people in and out of jobs frequently, so they have processes to preserve institutional knowledge outside of individual people’s heads.

Another example is a graphic designer who used to lay out some of our books who came up with the idea of a ‘production kit’ to centralize knowledge about our processes for how a history manuscript becomes a published book. This ended up taking the form of a simple table where the columns are the kinds of people who work on a book (e.g., author, copy editor, and designer) and the rows are chronological steps in the production process. This has proved very helpful as a knowledge resource for frequently asked questions such as when does the author prepare the index, what constitutes a suitably high-res photo, etc.

As a third example, several years ago, an outside author proactively decided to compile a simple table showing how he handled the various changes that several peer reviewers requested to his manuscript. Our office insists that authors make all changes that peer reviewers request, with very limited exceptions. This was such a convenient way for me to see that he had taken seriously all the comments that I now ask other authors to compile similar comments disposition matrices for their manuscripts.

When working with a colleague from the Security Office to review and potentially declassify a safe of historical documents, I found it a little challenging to remember all the relevant guidelines. So I suggested we devise a simple flowchart that depicts this knowledge visually, and my colleague drew it up. For example, if a particular document is w years old, originates at x agency, and includes discussion of y topic, then take z action. This could be helpful to summarize a lot of knowledge and personal experience for other NASA folks doing declassification.

Last but not least, a colleague in another HQ office has the interesting habit of drawing cartoons while in meetings to represent visually the main points being discussed. She drew one particular cartoon about a new way that our public affairs folks would do their work that was really great and garnered a lot of positive attention because it eloquently demonstrated the maxim that a picture is worth 1,000 words.

Are you observing any trends that affect knowledge management going forward?

I’m a little concerned about the trend toward social media and short-form writing. As my father, a good and very experienced writer likes to point out, ironically, it’s generally harder and takes longer to write something that’s shorter than longer. Thus short-form writing is OK in and of itself, but I am concerned that social media condense people’s attention spans and are seen as a substitute for longer, more in-depth forms of learning. Because of the very short length of Twitter and other social media platforms, I’m worried about the potential to focus on the superficial aspects of history. I believe social media should complement, not replace, newspapers and books. It’s like reading the headlines of a newspaper – you can find out what’s new maybe, but you can’t really find any kind of nuance or reasons for what has happened or the background or the whys and wherefores, so you’re not really learning in much detail. It’s general awareness, but lacking depth of knowledge. But I’m old-fashioned in this way.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding that people have about knowledge?

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding I’ve seen is that it’s compartmentalized into a box. I view knowledge as more organic to other ways of operating. Going back to what I mentioned earlier, people often think about history only subconsciously. But if you can think more consciously and thus analytically about history, then what you know, what don’t you know, and what you’re unsure of become clearer. People tend to think of ‘lessons learned’ as compartmentalized (and sometimes even separate from history!), and I don’t really view it that way at all. What are you learning? Knowledge. So knowledge and learning should be integrated into what everybody’s doing. I like to think that you can learn something from practically any situation you’re in or any person you meet. Knowledge needs to be flexible, adaptable and nimble.

Read other interviews from NASA Chief Knowledge Officers.

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