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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

Roger Forsgren, NASA Chief Knowledge Officer and APPEL Knowledge Services Director, discusses the integration of training and knowledge sharing activities.

Forsgren provides an overview of APPEL Knowledge Services and explains how the comprehensive, knowledge-dedicated resource helps NASA’s technical workforce achieve mission success.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • NASA training and knowledge sharing
  • Engineering leadership development
  • The importance of soft skills in a technical environment


Related Resources

Projectified™ with PMI Podcast: Lessons Learned—The Value of Knowledge Transfer with guest Roger Forsgren

Article: Introducing APPEL Knowledge Services

Lessons Learned

Technical Authority

APPEL Knowledge Services Course Catalog

Virtual Project Management Challenge

Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program

APPEL International Project Management

APPEL Case Study: Columbia’s Last Mission

Mars 2020


Commercial Crew Program

APPEL Courses:

Lessons Learned for Mission Success

Building & Leading NASA Teams


Roger Forsgren Credit: NASA

Roger Forsgren
Credit: NASA

Roger Forsgren is NASA Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) and APPEL Knowledge Services Director. As CKO, Forsgren leads NASA’s knowledge management efforts to ensure that the agency’s workforce has access to the critical knowledge needed for mission success. He serves as the focal point within the agency to develop policies and requirements necessary for integrating knowledge capture across programs, projects and centers. Forsgren oversees NASA’s Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership (APPEL). His association with APPEL began in 2005 when he was appointed Deputy Director of the organization. Prior to that, he worked at Glenn Research Center, where he progressed from mechanic to engineer, deputy project manager, and project manager. Forsgren has written numerous papers and articles, and served as guest speaker on topics such as ethics and training NASA engineers. Over the course of his career, Forsgren has received multiple awards and honors, including NASA’s Silver Snoopy and the Manned Flight Awareness Award. He holds a bachelor’s in history from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in engineering from Cleveland State University.



Roger Forsgren: Nobody else in the world is doing what they’re doing. It’s cutting-edge technology. It’s cutting-edge project management. We have a real opportunity to help them and actually be part of their project team.

You have NASA Knowledge Management, and what a treasure trove of fascinating, pertinent lessons learned and case studies. For any engineer, that’s like a sandbox or a playground to play around in, some of the lessons learned from over the years at NASA.

What can be cooler than that, to be part of a program that’s training the future leaders of NASA?

Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

In 2018, APPEL — the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership – joined forces with NASA’s Chief Knowledge Office to create APPEL Knowledge Services.

We’re pleased to have the director of APPEL Knowledge Services, Roger Forsgren, as our guest today. Roger has been part of the APPEL leadership team for 13 years and was selected in 2017 as NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer.

Roger, we appreciate you joining us today. Could you start by talking us through your thought process for combining training and knowledge management activities?

Forsgren: Sure. On the one hand, we have APPEL, which is a very strong program. It’s well respected within the agency and also outside of the agency. Last year, for example, we offered over 150 courses and we had 3,500 attendees. Also, we’ve been ranked as one of the best project management academies in the world.

Then on the other hand, you have NASA Knowledge Management, and what a treasure trove of fascinating, pertinent lessons learned and case studies. For any engineer, that’s like a sandbox or a playground to play around in, some of the lessons learned from over the years at NASA.

So, combining them provided a natural way to distribute lessons learned, and APPEL training is the perfect conduit for doing that, for sharing knowledge. APPEL course attendees are all project managers, project team members, and these are the exact people that we want to reach out to with the NASA lessons learned and the case studies and learning from the past. They’re the group that we want to connect with.

I think one of the best things we’ve done was to develop a one-stop website, and that’s to help NASA project team members and NASA engineers locate information as quickly and concisely as possible. And all the lessons learned databases that are available to us, we have them all located under one page on our website that they can get to that. All the training that might be required or necessary for a successful project is all easily reachable right from our website.

One of the areas that we’ve done a lot of work in recently is the Virtual Project Management Challenge, and it’s a talk show format, where we interview some of the leaders at NASA and talk about, in just a comfortable way, some of the topics and problems and opportunities that can affect a project team. So, I think the Virtual PM Challenge has been a real enhancement, because it turns engineering and case studies and lessons learned into interesting kinds of discussion topics. It’s looking at lessons learned and case studies from a different angle. Rather than reading a case study and trying to figure out what I’m supposed to learn from it, it’s kind of like watching a TV show, where people who have had to deal with those problems explain it to you in a real interesting and almost entertaining way.

So, I think combining knowledge management and training is a win-win for the agency, because it’s combining some of the resources that in the past maybe weren’t talking to each other as much as they should have. Obviously, NASA has some fascinating case studies and lessons learned out there, and now we have an opportunity to take those case studies and lessons learned and put them into the training conduit. And that’s not just courses, but that’s into our Virtual PM Challenge program, into a wide variety of ways that we reach out to our stakeholders.

So it’s a win-win for our stakeholders and those are the folks on our project team. They have an opportunity now to kind of digest some of these lessons learned and case studies and see them maybe in a different light. If you look at the Columbia tragedy, there’s more than one thing that went wrong that caused that, and we’ve developed our lessons learned for mission success. There’s a whole new curriculum about lessons learned and case studies.

The Columbia tragedy and the Challenger tragedy are all interspersed between all six of those courses, and each course looks at it from a different angle. Our cognitive bias course looks at the decision-making. What went wrong in some of the decision-making processes that some of the engineers and managers may have had? Then we also look at it from a technical standpoint. With Challenger, it was the O-rings and why that happened, not only why the design wasn’t as good as it should have been, but what happened in the decision processing previous to that, where they accepted that design and accepted that amount of risk.

So being able to utilize those lessons learned that the agency has and use APPEL as a conduit to get that message out to our stakeholders I think has been a huge success for us and it’s a win-win for everyone.

Host: What are some of the advantages of combining APPEL and CKO that make it a win-win?

Forsgren: I think there’s several. Right from the start, I think efficiency, when you look at it from a contractual and from a budget standpoint. Previously, I think our teams may have been a bit too compartmentalized. We had a CKO team and we had a training team, and they kind of kept to their own business. This opened up a real opportunity to kind of share some of those skills that our team has to work, not only in knowledge management and training. There is a perfect synergy there. Isn’t training knowledge after all? Training is trying to share knowledge, and that’s what we’re doing on the CKO portion. I think by combining them, it made things more effective and it’s certainly something that creates efficiency.

And another way, we brought more expertise onboard. We have CKOs at every field center and within every mission directorate, and these are people that have been doing the job for quite a while. They have a great deal of expertise in knowledge management, and we also made them available to the training side, to help us develop courses that are more responsive to the needs of our project teams. These are the people that are – you know, they’re the boots on the ground out at the centers and the mission directorates, and they can certainly help with that.

And collaboration. We’ve been able to work with the NASA Safety Center, the Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer and Human Resources, just to mention a few, to bring them into the fold and see if there’s areas that they can help with certain topics that we need to insert in some of our courses, and make our courses more representative of the needs of our stakeholders out at the centers.

And I think effectiveness. Utilize real NASA case studies and mishaps in our courses. What a great opportunity for us to “NASAtize” some of these courses. You can talk about requirements all day long, but when you start talking about things like requirements creepentering into a project and you start talking about a real project where that happened, where the project kind of went off center a little bit because the requirements started to slowly creep into a different direction during the project itself. So, when you bring in real case studies and real instances where other NASA engineers and other NASA project managers had to endure and had to solve, I think it makes the training that much more effective.

Host: With these improvements in effectiveness, efficiency, expertise and collaboration – and with the initial integration of APPEL and CKO successfully completed — what do you see as the next challenges and opportunities?

Forsgren: I think it’s to continue to try to provide the right training for the NASA technical workforce as the agency moves forward. We’re moving not only with SLS, but the Gateway program and the ISS continuing and Mars 2020 and Commercial Crew. There’s a lot of interesting opportunities for engineering development and for training in those areas.

I think one of the tough things we have to do is try to stay ahead of the training curve a little bit and try to anticipate the problems or the opportunities that will be involved with Gateway and also as SLS moves forward. So rather than just responding to a problem, we’re there before the problem happens, to work with project teams, to make sure that they’re successful.

I think in other areas, continue to work with our international partners. We currently have our IPM course, our International Project Management course, twice a year, which has been really helpful. NASA is going to be relying more and more on international collaboration in the future, and there’s a lot of not only cultural and technical issues. There’s a lot of other, you know, dealing with other time zones when your project management is trying to have meetings, and things that that you have to deal with. Certain cultures work with different ethics codes and things like that you have to kind of adjust to on an international project. I think those are some of the opportunities that we’re going to have to look at try to stay ahead of the curve.

Also, young professionals. We’ve been working with the international young professionals now for a couple years, and the young professionals within NASA also. They’re the future leaders of the aerospace industry and I think there’s a big legacy and some big shoes to fill for those folks, and we want to get them into their career, get their career started correctly and on the right foot.

And I think we want to remain focused on Technical Authority. I think that’s made a major impact at NASA. I think it’s something that is profoundly important, not only to your typical engineer on a project team. I think it’s profoundly important to upper management at NASA. They rely on it. And to be able to look at Technical Authority, and that’s questioning the risk on a project and feeling comfortable doing that and knowing that your management almost requires you to do that. If you feel uncomfortable, you need to bring it up to somebody’s attention, and to be able to have a culture like that and to make sure that that culture is maintained for the upcoming years and for the upcoming young professionals, so that they understand it, too.

Not many organizations are run like that. A lot of times, organizations will sweep their problems under a carpet and move forward. Not at NASA. I think we want to learn from our lessons learned. That’s a great benefit about working here.

Getting back to young professionals, we want to work closely with the next generation of NASA employees to understand what they may need to become better engineers, and make lessons learned from the past more relevant to them. For example, with the Columbia tragedy, in upcoming years we’re going to be touring each center. We’re going to bring some of the hardware that was found from Columbia, and we’re going to bring a one-day or two-day forum to the centers, precisely to reach out to our younger folks that maybe were in grade school and don’t really understand the real context of Columbia, and understand how it happened and how – not only the technical problems that caused Columbia, but also the decision-making processes and things like that that were part of the Columbia tragedy, just so that everybody is aware of it, especially our younger folks.

Host: Roger, we mentioned that you’ve been part of the APPEL leadership team for more than a decade. What are some of the highlights in terms of courses that have been offered and the impact they’ve had?

Forsgren: I think it’s been involved in doing some of our training in soft skills. By soft skills, I mean communications, leadership and critical thinking skills. Those are some of the things that we’ve been concentrating on.

A couple years ago, we held what we called a Fifth Year Forum, and we invited some leading professors from engineering universities from around the country. We even had a couple international folks attending. We asked them, “What would you do if engineering was not four years and you had an extra year to train your engineers?” To a T, all of them came back and said we’d work on communication, leadership and critical thinking skills, because in those four years there’s a lot of analytical courses, a lot of calculus courses and things like that, which every engineer needs to understand and know, but it’s the soft skills.

What we came away with from that Fifth Year Forum was that we’ll develop that fifth year for our new hires and also for our current engineers. So we developed a whole new curriculum in communication and also in leadership, not only just leadership, but also team membership. We have courses in that. Not everybody is going to be a project manager. Most people are going to be on a project team and they have to understand how to work together with other team members, not only with their project manager, but also with the other team members that they’ve got to coexist with and work with.

One of my favorite books is called, “Engineering and the Mind’s Eye.” It’s by Eugene Ferguson. It’s really basically a history of the engineering profession, and in there he makes a real interesting quote, and I think it’s applicable to NASA and probably to most engineers. It’s “Engineers are good at math and analytics and they generally don’t make computational errors. But where they do make mistakes is in the decision-making process.”

I think if you look back at our lessons learned database, if you look back at our case studies, it’s going to be hard to find anything where an engineer made a computational error, but you’re going to find a ton of instances where there were decision-making errors. What we’ve kind of drawn from not only our Fifth Year Forum and developing soft skills, but also from understanding how an engineer thinks and the decision-making process that an engineer has to go through, we’ve created a new curriculum and it’s called “Lessons Learned for Mission Success.”

This curriculum is based on real NASA case studies and lessons learned, and consists right now of seven brand new courses that cover such topics as cognitive bias and complex decision-making and critical thinking skills. It’s all in the hopes of really developing that fifth year for our engineers, and try to help our engineers get what they didn’t get in their undergraduate training.

Host: Another developmental opportunity geared toward engineers is the Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program. Could you describe SELDP and its overall benefit to the agency?

Forsgren: The SELDP program has been so successful that Ralph Roe, the chief engineer, wants to open it up not only just to systems engineers, as it has been in the past, but to all engineers, to give them an opportunity to become part of the program. Basically, we recruit high-potential employees from the centers. We look for nominations from the center directors.

For nine months, they’re sent to another center on a tour of duty. They’re given a mentor at that center. They’re given a completely new project to work on. And that’s to help them get more than just a center-based idea of what NASA is, to give them a more agency-based idea of what the capabilities are at other centers.

It also helps them network with other folks at those centers for their future career. They’re going to be working on another project team. You could be from Glenn Research Center sent over to JPL for nine months, and those are connections that you’ll keep for your entire career. We currently have 11 folks on it. You attend seven different workshops throughout that. It’s an 18-month period, and you get to develop some really strong relationships with those people that are part of your program team, but also some of the alumni.

We have over 80 folks in our SELDP alumni. Those 80-plus folks right now, the alumni of that program, they’re looked at as becoming the future leaders of NASA. What can be cooler than that, to be part of a program that’s training the future leaders of NASA? NASA has got a great legacy and has done some great stuff and doing great stuff now, and with Gateway and return to the moon and then to Mars, we’re going to be doing even greater stuff, and these are the people that are going to be leading the agency. To be part of that is a unique experience and it’s a wonderful experience.

The program has always had great support from upper management at NASA, not only from Ralph Roe, the chief engineer, but also from the administrator. Traditionally, the administrator shows up at the graduation ceremony, and that shows you what kind of level of visibility the program has. These are our current leadership and they’re interested in developing the new leaders for the agency.

Those people that are nominated, they have to go through quite a bit a vetting to get accepted in the program. They have to have a really strong resume. They have to be uprooted, basically, from their home center for nine months and go to another center, and that’s not something easy to do. It shows you, I think, the level of dedication those folks have for the program and for the agency, because they’re going to become an integral part of the agency management in the future.

So I think they pay a price, but I think they get some really significant returns on it. I think the agency gets significant returns on it also. We get an opportunity to develop future leaders, and those folks get an opportunity to understand NASA in broader terms than just their own home center. They’re kind of kicked out of the nest for nine months, into a new home with new people, and they have to learn how to adjust and not only deal with the technical side of the project they’re on, but they have to learn how to deal with the people side and develop those soft skills that are essential for the good development of future managers.

Host: Anyone who spends time with you quickly sees your passion for NASA and equipping the technical workforce with the knowledge and training required to contribute to mission success. What drives your enthusiasm?

Forsgren: A couple of things. I don’t know if you’re aware, but I originally majored in history, when I was in undergrad school, and when I got out, it was kind of hard to find a decent job as a history major. The economy was bad at that time. So, I went back to school and got an engineering degree, and I was fortunate to get hired at NASA.

But when you combine history and engineering and knowledge management, isn’t that what knowledge managers do? So, I have the best of both worlds. I have technical engineering topics and subjects and case studies and I enjoy history. So, I can go back and research things that happened on Apollo and the Space Shuttle and things like that. It just worked out to be a perfect fit for me.

I’ve been blessed to be employed by NASA for over 35 years. I started out as a technician at Glenn Research Center. I’ve been fortunate enough to have managers that encouraged me to go back to school, night school. I did night school for over 10 years to get an engineering degree and a Master’s degree in engineering. So, I feel like I’m definitely part of the NASA family.

They’ve been good to me and I’ve tried to be as good as I can be to NASA. It’s a great agency and we’re doing exciting stuff. It’s one thing if you’re an engineer with an auto company and you’re designing door handles or brake systems and things like that, but if you’re an engineer at NASA, you’re on projects that go to Jupiter, that go to Mars, that go to Saturn, go to the sun. I mean, what gets better than that?

If you have a career at NASA, you can be on a project that’s – it could be in aeronautics, which is fascinating, designing supersonic flight. Then that’s done in five or six years and you can move on to a project that’s going to Mars or the solar system and things like that. There’s no other industry or no other organization in the world that offers that type of opportunity. So what engineer wouldn’t be excited about that?

Then I think that all kind of pulls together into being in an opportunity with engineering development and knowledge management at an organization like NASA, because it gives us a chance to help our workforce. We’re working on cool things, but they’re really difficult things.

If you go back to two well-known quotes from Gene Kranz, who was a NASA legend, one thing he said, a quote is, “There is no achievement without risk.” The other quote he’s well known for is, “Failure is not an option.” So, they’re kind of contradictory in a way, and if you’re on a NASA project and it’s a billion dollars or whatever, it’s high profile, yeah, you have to take risks, but at the same time, failure is not an option at NASA. So, you have to kind of juggle that to be in a position that I’ve been fortunate enough to be in, to be the APPEL Director and also the Chief Knowledge Officer, because we can help those project teams with their difficult jobs, because nobody else in the world is doing what they’re doing.

It’s cutting-edge technology. It’s cutting-edge project management. We have a real opportunity to help them and actually be part of their project team, and be part of some of the cool stuff they’re doing.

Host: NASA has accumulated thousands of technical documents, lessons learned, case studies and materials that need to be shared across the agency. As the NASA CKO, how do you “manage” knowledge management?

Forsgren: That’s a great question. One of the things we need to do is be judicious on the case studies and lessons learned that we integrate into our training program because there are so many of them. I think our workforce is so busy that we don’t want to overwhelm people. So, we have to be careful of not only what we present during our courses. We’ve got to make sure that the case studies and lessons learned are pertinent to that topic being taught in the course.

Another thing that we’ve done is to take a look at our website. I think it’s really well organized and it gives an engineer, who is on a project team, who has got a schedule that’s really tough to meet, to make it easier for him or her, so they don’t have to go searching through half a dozen websites to try to find either a lessons learned that they’re curious about or a course that they need information about, or a case study that’s something similar to what they’re working on. It’s all right there in a one-stop shop. I think we’ve done a real good job of organizing that material and making sure we’ve got the kind of material that a project team member would be able to utilize.

If you look at the Columbia tragedy, I think that showed the value and the power of lessons learned. Right now, NASA has a very open culture and that’s due to the lessons we learned from the Columbia tragedy, and that shows you what kind of agency we have. Something this big, this huge agency that deals with such high technical problems, and it’s always under the spotlight because of schedule and budget and things like that, that they’re able to transform.

The Columbia tragedy was something very horrible, but it did make NASA a better agency, and I think it did that through the implementing of Technical Authority, where now if somebody is on a project team and you see something that you think is increasing the risk of that project or is a potential problem, you can bring it to your project manager and explain it to the project manager. If you still feel like there’s a problem, it can go all the way to the center director. It can go to the chief engineer. It can go all the way to the administrator. But it shows you that NASA not only understands risks, but they’re willing to change their culture that much, to make sure that we don’t have another Columbia tragedy.

Host: Thanks to Roger Forsgren for joining us and providing an overview of APPEL Knowledge Services. If you’d like more information about the topics Roger discussed, please visit Roger’s bio and a transcript are also available, along with a link to a recent Projectified with PMI podcast episode where Roger was interviewed about lessons learned and the value of knowledge transfer.

If you have topic suggestions for upcoming episodes of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL, and use the hashtag SmallStepsGiantLeaps.

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