Tiffany Smith discusses knowledge sharing in NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.
Tiffany Smith serves as the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD). She is responsible for defining, developing, implementing and managing ARMD IT systems and cybersecurity requirements as well as leading a comprehensive, state-of-the-art knowledge management, data storage and reporting system for the mission directorate. This activity supports aeronautics research conducted by NASA’s four research centers — Ames Research Center, Armstrong Flight Research Center, Glenn Research Center and Langley Research Center — and helps to enable the transformation of aviation to serve future needs, produce demonstrable benefits, and leverage technology advances both within and beyond traditional aviation disciplines.
Smith previously served for over a decade with the U.S. Department of State in various assignments, including leading the Department’s Enterprise Data Quality Initiative and Application and Data Coordination Working Group; developing capabilities for data analytics, electronic records management, and digital collaboration; and overseeing agencywide knowledge management activities, including Diplopedia and the Communities @ State program.
What are your thoughts on how knowledge sharing affects mission success?
All of NASA’s aeronautics research activities critically depend on effective knowledge sharing, whether within a team, with large and small businesses and universities, or with the general public. There’s more than a century of U.S. aviation history to inform our thinking as well as very, very contemporary knowledge that we’re gaining and applying every day.
A lot of our knowledge management work also just kind of happens and has happened for many years over the course of research. It’s interesting because in trying to understand what’s the critical knowledge, there ends up being sometimes sort of a philosophical discussion in a really good and healthy way among our community. There’s a general sense throughout NASA of really valuing knowledge sharing, which gives us some great advantages. You can find these in healthy communities of interest, lunch-and-learn opportunities, and regular technical presentations that are available to personnel across centers. One of my tasks is figuring out how that information can best equip both our leaders and our researchers, who are sometimes one and the same. Many of my requirements come from senior leadership, but I also get the opportunity to listen to our researchers and engineers directly, which has been really powerful in understanding where the needs are and tying that to mission success.
One of the things that’s incredibly gratifying about working in knowledge management at NASA is that there is a community of other knowledge management professionals across the agency. I’m the only formal knowledge manager for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, so being able to learn from the other knowledge managers at the different mission directorates, centers and other organizations –through conference calls and face-to-face meetings — is very helpful as we all focus on contributing to mission success.
How do you think NASA’s technical workforce benefits from knowledge sharing?
One of the things that I found when I joined NASA a couple of years ago was that there was sort of a presumption that everyone knew what our goals were and how they fit together, but we didn’t have a central source for that information that was available to the entire aeronautics research workforce. We’ve focused attention in the Headquarters knowledge management function on helping to make these priorities more transparent. In order to do this, we’ve been developing an intranet that people can use and access if they’re doing aeronautics research work. That’s helpful for people to have one single source of truth around what activities we’re conducting and what areas we’re beginning to work.
We’re also considering other ways to help people working at research centers to be aware of how their work relates to our overarching mission and what it looks like as we complete some research projects and shift into new directions or take advantage of new technologies. What we’re trying to do is make the information from the mission directorate more available to help inspire and inform the research avenues they might want to take in the future.
Are there any successful knowledge efforts or best practices in your organization that you’d like to highlight?
We have an Aeronautics Knowledge Management Steering Group that has worked remarkably well for us. I lead the group, which includes representatives from each of the four NASA research centers as well as each of the Aeronautics Research programs and ARMD Headquarters offices. This group develops our strategy at the mission level to determine how we prioritize knowledge management goals. We also have a smaller operational team that helps to bring those recommendations into reality.
The Knowledge Management Steering Group has a clear mission and a clear vision for NASA Aeronautics knowledge management. We see this as a multi-year effort to improve knowledge access and transfer, support mission-focused learning, and create an enhanced consistency and coherence across NASA Aeronautics. Each of those three areas represents a goal that we set objectives against each year.
One best practice that helped to get ARMD started with knowledge management was performing an environmental scan to examine characteristics that set our organization apart. In Aeronautics and across NASA, we have a lot of strengths. Our personnel have extraordinary expertise, and we hold expertise in high esteem, which is a huge advantage to doing knowledge management work. But what we found in our environmental scan was that we’ve got some challenges around geographic distribution, around needing to be able to find ways to share information, especially when working across centers. And we also have a lot of people with very, very specialized knowledge that could potentially benefit other researchers. We’re trying to figure out how to bridge those gaps. I think an environmental scan is not something knowledge professionals always get the opportunity to take the time to do. For us it’s been a helpful, powerful motivator for our team to think through solving these challenges, and that’s why we’re here and that’s how we show our value.
One final effort that’s been helpful for our team is benchmarking. We evaluated ourselves using a specific instrument that let us look across a number of dimensions and consider areas where we’re doing really well and areas where we need to do more. Seeing the raw numbers was really helpful in setting goals and objectives. What we found was that we were doing really well in governance and infrastructure. We were doing really well in overarching policies and starting to get the technology put in place. What we needed to do was make sure that everyone’s on board with our plans. So, one overarching initiative for this year is to ensure that we’re communicating effectively about the mission and vision I mentioned before.
Do you have a favorite example of successful knowledge sharing?
We are almost finished with a project that I’m really excited about. In May 2019, we hosted an X-Plane Knowledge Capture Workshop at the Armstrong Flight Research Center. It was a joint project with the Office of the Chief Engineer, the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, and the Armstrong Flight Research Center. We invited people who had worked on different experimental planes in the past as well as people who are working on the two piloted, experimental aircraft currently in development. We gathered them together over the course of two days and focused on parsing out all the different elements that go into that — project management, design, development, flight operations and other areas — and essentially had a large, facilitated conversation with about 60 people in attendance and on the phone. The conversation ebbed and flowed, and all the participants indicated that they got a lot out of it.
We ended up with about a 400-page transcript as a result of the discussions, and we wanted to find a way to share it, but 400 pages might be overwhelming. Instead, what we wanted to do was extract the most relevant information that anyone needs to know if they’re thinking about experimental research.
We have two fantastic Virtual Student Federal Service e-interns from Texas A&M and Washington State University who have been working with us. They’ve been working through the transcript to develop a shorter report that we can share more broadly, and they’re also working on ways to highlight specific recommendations from those conversations that people can apply in their day-to-day activities.
So, to me this was one of those opportunities where you could have a two-day workshop and that can be really, really effective, but there are also lots and lots of other people who could also learn from the same discussions. So, this project will allow us to capture the knowledge and make sure it didn’t just live in those two days, but can also stay available for others in the future.
What are some of the most prominent knowledge challenges in your organization?
The challenge that I think about a lot for NASA Aeronautics is mostly around tacit or passive knowledge. It’s around this idea that there is really critical information that people know, and they don’t realize they know it, and we won’t realize that they were the only person that knew the information or knew how to work a specific way. And so, the thing that I think about in terms of prominent knowledge challenges — and that we’re trying to take on with our knowledge management strategy — is to parse that out to the extent that we can, especially around what we’ve called ‘mission-focused learning.’
Another area that we’ve started to tackle is identifying the knowledge that’s unique to the Aeronautics Research mission. How do we ensure that it is captured and shared? How do we communicate with each other? How does it work with leadership skills in other areas? So, this area is a little bit nascent. It’s a little bit vague. But there is this sense that there’s some really powerful information that exists, and we don’t capture it in our regular sort of detritus of administrative work.
From my perspective, for knowledge management to work, it’s really important that it not be an add-on at the end of the day. It should be part and parcel of all work. But trying to figure out how to capture the most critical information in a way that doesn’t add more work for other people is something that our team has been thinking about a lot.
Are there knowledge management efforts, either within NASA or other organizations, that you find particularly remarkable or innovative?
I’m really impressed with the pause-and-learn process, and I think that’s worked really well for our colleagues at Goddard and other centers. It’s a really powerful tool. Another knowledge management effort that I learned about recently is how the YMCA has focused on organizational change management as it applies to knowledge management. Several organizations have done that successfully, and I think there’s something innovative and neat about tying cultural change very closely to knowledge management at NASA and elsewhere.
Are you observing any trends or cultural shifts that affect knowledge management going forward?
For the work that we’ve done here in Aeronautics, we have been focusing on using digital transformation tools to support our knowledge management effort, and that’s been important and helpful for us. As people are increasingly a distributed workforce, as we’re taking advantage of things like telework or even just communicating on the go, I think finding ways to make sure that information is delivered to people where they are and when they need it is increasingly important.
There are trends around artificial intelligence and machine learning that we’re starting to look at and see what we can apply, and we’re also using some really practical experience and expertise around data management, business process analysis, and other areas to support a more digital culture, which I think is useful and helpful.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding that people have about knowledge?
From my perspective, one of the biggest misunderstandings people have about knowledge is that it is a clear and measurable thing. I think there are instead many different facets you can attach to different areas from which people can learn or obtain data. And, certainly, I should also say I am a huge advocate for metrics in knowledge management, and I think evaluation is very beneficial. But knowledge itself, I think it’s sometimes messy. It is not necessarily just a specific set of facts that you learn. And I think accepting that and moving forward from there gives you some freedom to be more flexible and creative with a knowledge management program. From what I’ve seen, many of the impressive research activities that have happened in aeronautics have not necessarily just been a very clear hypothesis-test-result. Sometimes you gather information from different places to inform an incredible outcome.