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Before assuming its present structure as APPEL Knowledge Services, NASA’s Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership underwent several metamorphoses in response to changing needs at NASA over the decades.

The First Generation — Program and Project Management Initiative (PPMI) Training (1988–1992)

The precursor to APPEL was the Program and Project Management Initiative (PPMI), founded in 1988 as part of NASA’s response to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The first phase of PPMI, sponsored by then-Deputy Administrator J. R. Thompson, consisted of a training budget with one full-time civil service employee. It pursued its mission – promoting project management excellence and competency in advance of NASA’s need – through a series of training courses that taught the fundamentals of project management knowledge.

The first Program Plan for the PPMI stated, “The primary mission of the PPMI effort is to develop NASA personnel through a number of parallel activities: developing and delivering formal classroom and on the job training, capturing and disseminating past agency experiences, studies focused on current and future technical management requirements and skills and the documentation and communication of current and new program and project management methods.”

Such a mission was well conceived for its organizational setting in 1990. At the time, NASA still primarily managed large, expensive, long-term programs and projects. Missions such as Apollo, Shuttle, Viking, and the Hubble Space Telescope offered technologically challenging programs that allowed a natural progression of learning in a deliberate and hierarchical context.

The initial PPMI curriculum efforts were limited in scope to traditional training approaches, reflecting the status of Adult Learning theory and technology at the time. PPMI provided a sound foundation in preparation for project management. In addition, individuals could expect the time to learn and fine-tune expertise in a work setting that surrounded them with experienced professionals. In this era of a few very large programs, with an abundance of project expertise cultivated through the challenges of Apollo and Shuttle, such a strategy was both logical and desirable.

The Second Generation — Competency Management and the Birth of APPEL (1993–2000)

A new era began in 1992 with the appointment of Dan Goldin as NASA Administrator. Goldin initiated a dramatic remodeling of NASA program and project management that emphasized doing more with less, greatly increasing the volume of project work, and doing it in a way that emphasized safety, innovation, low cost, speed, and quality. This became known throughout the agency as the era of “Faster, Better, Cheaper.” Such a demanding vision dramatically altered the nature of both project management and the way talent would be developed.

In 1992, Goldin charged a Program Excellence Team with streamlining and improving project management. At the time, the average life cycle of a program or project from authorization to launch was about eight years, and the typical program cost and schedule overruns averaged a growth of over 60% from commitment estimate.

The Program Excellence Team cited seven major factors (identified as part of the Jack Lee Study on project management, 1992) that drive NASA program cost and technical risk:

  • Inadequate Phase B (Formulation) requirements definition
  • Unrealistic dependence on unproven technology
  • Annual funding instability
  • Complex organizational structures, including multiple/unclear interfaces
  • Cost estimates that are often misused
  • Scope additions due to “requirements creep”
  • Schedule slips
  • Acquisition strategy, which does not promote cost containment.

This work led to the establishment of the NASA Program Management Council and Program Management Council Working Group. This was the first critical task in the process of forming a project management policy and guidelines document to promote “Faster, Better and Cheaper” projects.

By the mid-1990s, it became clear that NASA’s workforce development needs had outgrown PPMI’s original model. Up to that point, its training programs emphasized curriculum without any clear link to mission success and requirements. Therefore, a major effort was undertaken to identify the core competencies required for success at different stages of a career. This led to the advent of competency-driven project management development.

The competency-driven approach centered on a formal curriculum strategy [eventually called the Project Management Development Process (PMDP)], which was intended to link critical project competencies to NASA-sanctioned learning and education. Such a systematic analysis of curriculum content in relation to organizational customer requirements was the first attempt to tie mission success to human resources through learning.

This transition led to an increased emphasis on curriculum, certification, benchmarking, research, and a greater emphasis on job aids and tools. These developments represented a natural extension of the environment, as well as advances in Adult Learning theory and educational technology. There was a continuous demand for PPMI to upgrade its services and products once the competencies necessary to increase project management capability had been identified. As requests mounted for new courses, certification of learning and competency, online computer support, and intact project team performance support, the groundwork was laid for a significantly broader and different developmental organization than originally envisioned.

PPMI evolved into APPEL in 1998, and its work became more vital than ever as the number of projects increased at the same time the size of the workforce decreased. NASA reduced its overall civil service workforce by 26% and its headquarters staff by 50% between FY 1993 and FY 2000. Organizational restructuring and reductions resulted in a 52% reduction in supervisory positions and a 15% reduction in Senior Executive Service (SES) positions. On an agency-wide basis, the supervisor to employee ratio went from 1:6 to 1:10. These changes reduced the number of on-site mentors and experienced project managers, creating new demands for innovative and accelerated strategies to enhance learning and development.

The Third Generation — Human Capital and the New NASA (2001–2012)

NASA proceeded through accelerated change in virtually every facet of the organization, and reflected worldwide changes in the business environment. In a short span of time the responsibility of project managers shifted from a pure focus on mission success (technical, business, safety, and customer satisfaction) to responsibility for business management, commercialization, new technology identification and development, customer satisfaction, strategy, and much more. New demands came about as the result of legislation, Presidential initiatives to improve the management of federal agencies, and international standards such as ISO-9000. (See the NASA Strategic Management Handbook for more detail about external requirements from the Executive and Legislative Branches.) As part of a major strategic change, NASA increasingly relied on the products and services of APPEL to ensure that its workforce could meet the full range of challenges facing it.

The Fourth Generation—NASA’s Knowledge Imperative: Evolution of APPEL and the Chief Knowledge Office (CKO) (2012-2017)

For over a decade, APPEL provided NASA’s technical workforce with support through its integrated curriculum, team support services, and knowledge sharing activities. In January 2012, a Congressionally established advisory group called the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, recommended that NASA establish a single focal point within NASA to develop the policy and requirements necessary to integrate knowledge capture across programs, projects, and centers. In response, NASA appointed its first-ever, agency-wide Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), building upon of the wealth of knowledge sharing activities already underway across NASA, including APPEL.

Over the course of a year, the knowledge initiative to develop a more consistent knowledge capability across the agency grew. As a result, the work of APPEL and the CKO became distinct yet integrated entities designed to promote individual, team, and organizational learning through training and knowledge management.

APPEL and the CKO worked side by side in an environment that was dramatically different than the one that gave rise to PPMI over 25 years earlier. At NASA, the pressure to succeed was accompanied by an increasing emphasis on factors such as speed, cost, innovation, partnerships, and sustainability. In such an environment, the question confronting NASA became: How do we meet the challenges of our portfolio of programs and projects while maintaining the highest standards of safety, performance, and efficiency?

Starting in 2013, APPEL shifted its focus, placing greater emphasis on promoting learning through curriculum and hands-on development programs. The Academy promoted individual learning through the Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program (SELDP), Rocket University, and Project HOPE (Hands-On Project Experience). These activities were communicated through various formats, including the APPEL website, social media, formal presentations, video, design, and online learning materials. At the same time, the CKO worked to establish NASA as a learning organization and a leader in knowledge management through a wide range of programs and tools such as Masters with Masters, the Critical Knowledge Gateway, and the NASA Knowledge Map, as well as regular meetings of the NASA Knowledge Community and the Federal Knowledge Management Community.

The Fifth Generation: APPEL Knowledge Services (2018-Present)

In 2018, APPEL and the CKO joined forces to create APPEL Knowledge Services. The new organization unites the award-winning curriculum and career development tools from APPEL with the critical knowledge sharing and knowledge management capabilities of the CKO to establish a comprehensive, knowledge-dedicated resource for NASA.

APPEL Knowledge Services supports NASA’s mission on multiple levels. It delivers critical learning through its wide range of courses. It offers vital career development opportunities through its interactive resources and hands-on development programs. And it fosters knowledge sharing through unique tools and initiatives that enable the agency’s technical workforce to gain access to essential knowledge when they need it. Altogether, APPEL Knowledge Services helps ensure NASA’s project management and engineering communities have the skills and knowledge needed to advance mission success.