NASA Chief Knowledge Officer and APPEL Knowledge Services Director Tiffany Smith discusses knowledge sharing and learning and development.
APPEL Knowledge Services blends the award-winning curriculum and career development tools from the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL) with the critical knowledge sharing and knowledge management capabilities of NASA’s Chief knowledge Office (CKO) to provide a comprehensive, knowledge-dedicated resource for NASA. A key goal of the organization is to help develop the NASA technical workforce while enhancing the ability to manage and share the different types of knowledge needed for mission success.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- How knowledge sharing is connected with learning and development
- What NASA is doing to address current knowledge sharing challenges
- How NASA approaches knowledge management
Tiffany Smith is NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) and Director of the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL). Smith leads efforts to ensure that the agency’s technical workforce has access to the critical knowledge needed for mission success. She is responsible for managing NASA’s APPEL Knowledge Services learning and development program, providing strategic communications and continuous learning to project management and systems engineering personnel, and overseeing knowledge services across the agency in collaboration with the center and mission directorate knowledge community. Smith’s research and professional experience is centered in knowledge management, digital collaboration, and social epistemology. She previously served as the CKO for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. Prior to joining NASA, Smith served with the U.S. Department of State in various roles and also performed detail assignments with the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration. She began her federal government career with the U.S. Army at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. Smith earned a bachelor’s in English from Fordham University, a master’s in library and information science from the Catholic University of America, and a master’s in science and technology studies from Virginia Tech.
Tiffany Smith: It is tremendously exciting to help someone gain understanding of a concept or a way to solve a problem that they didn’t have before.
Knowledge management can seem to be diffuse or fuzzy if you haven’t performed that type of work before, but the CKOs are helping teams to gather lessons learned. They’re also helping to ensure that people have access to the knowledge they need to do their jobs.
The value obtained by good knowledge management can pay extraordinary returns.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
APPEL Knowledge Services supports NASA’s mission on multiple levels, offering learning and development opportunities and fostering knowledge sharing.
Tiffany Smith is NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer and Director of APPEL Knowledge Services.
Tiffany, thanks so much for joining us today on the podcast.
Smith: Thank you so much for having me, Deana. I’m excited to be here.
Host: We get questions sometimes along the lines of ‘What exactly is APPEL Knowledge Services?’ What’s your elevator pitch to answer that question?
Smith: That is a great question. So, APPEL Knowledge Services is our name for NASA’s office of the Chief Engineer’s Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership. It’s APPEL Knowledge Services Program, and what we do in close coordination with partners throughout the agency, our primary goal is to ensure the agency engineering and program project management workforce has the skills and knowledge they need to advance our mission success as an agency.
Our team on the APPEL Knowledge Services group of about 20 people, we do this by providing a world-class training curriculum. We convene the NASA Chief Knowledge Officer community, and we support important knowledge sharing initiatives across the agency. So, making professional development resources available for the technical workforce and providing strategic communications, like this outstanding podcast, to support continuous learning for our people.
APPEL’s probably best known at NASA for our course offerings. We have really exceptional courses and we organize those into six subject areas with more than 60 individual courses, and most of these we can offer multiple times per year. So, last fiscal year in 2022, we provided 179 courses to 3,667 participants, as well as 11 quick webinars to an additional almost 3000 participants.
In addition to all that, we lead knowledge management activities for the agency by convening and coordinating with Chief Knowledge Officers from all NASA centers and mission directorates to support knowledge sharing across geographic and organizational boundaries.
Host: What drives NASA to put so much emphasis on sharing knowledge across the agency?
Smith: NASA’s missions are dependent on the knowledge of our people, both in terms of professional expertise and hands-on experience. Some of our missions take place over generations and others are much shorter in duration. In either case, we need to have capable, competent people to develop, operate, and lead them.
We rely on diverse strengths in our various centers and mission directorates across the United States. For instance, different centers have specific areas of emphasis, and they contribute expertise to particular types of missions or attributes of aeronautics or spaceflight activities. For that distributed project-based in environment to deliver the strong results we need, people who work for different centers and mission directorates need to be able to share their engineering and project management insights with each other.
So, here’s an example. Stennis Space Center provides rocket propulsion test services for NASA and for other organizations. That unique and specialized knowledge implicit in managing those facilities is maintained by Stennis. And the folks at Stennis also have to be able to share the knowledge gained from their tests effectively with their partners. This is a fairly common type of knowledge sharing. It’s what we support every day.
We also need to share how-to knowledge among organizations that manage, say research and technology projects of all kinds, or find ways to share knowledge across centers for the programs and projects that have personnel assigned to multiple centers. And that’s very common at NASA as well. So there we put a lot of emphasis on sharing knowledge effectively within those teams.
And then finally, we need to take advantage of knowledge gain from any project that might be applicable to a future project, whether it’s a success or a failure. We call that kind of knowledge ‘lessons learned,’ and it is one of the hardest parts of all of this. It’s relatively easy to share your insights with someone specific when you can identify the concepts you have in common, but it is much more difficult to describe your knowledge in a way that’s useful and relevant to an audience that might not exist yet.
So, you could think, for instance, of the insights from the Apollo era that apply to the Artemis missions. Figuring out the lessons learned during the Apollo era, that would be tremendously difficult. But then thinking through how valuable they are today, well, we know they are. So finding ways to help encourage that is something that’s very important to NASA.
Host: How is knowledge sharing connected with learning and development?
Smith: The APPEL Knowledge Services team has a very practical vision. What we want to do is to help our workforce and our teams to apply their knowledge and their insights to our missions and to deliver the best results for NASA and ultimately for the benefit of all. We think that to do this, the NASA workforce needs to have training that focuses on critical areas and allows for plenty of engagement. People need to have hands-on development activities and a solid career pathway framework so they can see what it will take to advance. And they also need to have knowledge sharing capabilities that help teams to learn from each other and to be better informed as a result.
So, the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership and the Chief Knowledge Officer function, we are part of the Office of the Chief Engineer at NASA Headquarters, and we truly benefit from that relationship.
We also liaise closely with other organizations at NASA, especially the Chief Program Management Officer, members of the NASA training community, including the Chief Human Capital Officer, the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Office of Procurement to coordinate and to ensure we’re making the most efficient use of resources to support the NASA workforce’s learning and knowledge sharing needs.
It has taken a lot of effort to get here, to get where we are, and APPEL has responded to a number of different drivers along the way, and all of those things combine around that question about knowledge sharing and learning and development, how they relate. So, I’ll take you just briefly through history here.
The team that we call APPEL Knowledge Services today traces its origins to Challenger, after which just one civil servant was assigned to help improve project management practices across the agency. And that role and the academy grew over time. Its primary focus for many years was on accelerating learning and building competency.
One of the most significant drivers for our work, of course, was the Columbia accident. And the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s observations on challenges with NASA’s organizational culture that CAIB identified, issues with lack of candor and communications, siloed management practices, and insufficient sharing of lessons learned, among other cultural challenges. NASA made really important changes as a result of this, including establishing our technical authorities. So, those are the Chief Engineer, the Chief Health and Medical Officer, the Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, and installing the Office of the Chief Engineer’s NASA Engineering and Safety Center as a source for independent assessment and expert knowledge for the whole agency.
In addition to those changes, it’s developing and maintaining a culture that supports knowledge sharing. It requires continued vigilance. NASA established the Chief Knowledge Officer position in 2012 at the recommendation of our Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel in order to connect insights across centers and missions and support organizational learning across teams. So, the Chief Knowledge Officer position and APPEL, the Academy, merged in 2018 then to create APPEL Knowledge Services. That’s our current structure. And through this merger, the courses, the curriculum, the professional development activities are all really informed by insights from our Chief Knowledge Officers throughout NASA centers and missions. And the CKOs can also partner with APPEL to support learning and development opportunities for the workforce they represent.
One added benefit of the APPEL and Knowledge Services merger is in strategic communications and doing those knowledge sharing events. There’s some efficiency here in being able to utilize those resources by sharing those among the Academy and the Chief Knowledge Officer teams. There’s also an added benefit of being able to relate and amplify important messages in multiple forums. So, things like our Knowledge Inventory, the articles for our Insight newsletter, the Spotlight on Lessons Learned series, and our Critical Knowledge inSight series can all work together to help amplify those messages.
So, in this way, what we try to do is support a virtuous cycle of knowledge sharing and a reinforcement of continuous learning across our workforce.
Host: How would you summarize NASA’s approach to knowledge management?
Smith: Our definition at NASA is that knowledge management is a practice that empowers an organization to continuously capture, distribute, and effectively utilize knowledge. And the reason I say our definition at NASA is that knowledge management activities occur in many different organizations within the federal government and in industry as well. There have been some great collaboration among the federal knowledge management community in support of sharing position descriptions, documenting competencies, but we don’t currently have a standard occupational series across government to point to in the same way as say, an accountant or an electrical engineer.
So, what we see is that where knowledge management as a function is placed depends on the agency or the organization’s interest and the value they’re looking to obtain from it. Here at NASA, knowledge management assists programs and projects to innovate and to systematically improve their performance in implementing their mission by transferring knowledge.
And so, NASA’s knowledge policy, NPD 7120.6A, that feels very comfortable to me. It just rolls off the tongue. But for other folks, this is something that’s publicly available, the NASA policy directive that we maintain, is managed by its Office of the Chief Engineer and the NASA Chief Knowledge Officer in the APPEL Knowledge Services team is part of that office.
NASA’s Chief Engineer is one of the three NASA technical authorities I mentioned earlier, and OCE, our Office of the Chief Engineer, provides leadership, policy direction oversight for engineering activities throughout the agency, among other responsibilities. As I mentioned earlier, we also coordinate closely with the NASA Chief Program Management Officer. So, having that relationship is very helpful to us in terms of thinking through our approach to knowledge management. What we hope to get out of it is around that critical knowledge of our technical workforce.
NASA also uses senior leadership councils to govern agency decision making. Those councils provide high-level oversight. They set requirements, strategic priorities. They guide assessments of the agency. And in the spirit of that model, we maintain a federated approach to NASA knowledge management. Each NASA center and mission directorate assigns their own Chief Knowledge Officer. This federated approach really helps us to ensure that local knowledge is managed in context, and it’s important for us for NASA’s success as an agency that those CKOs build community, they support each other, and they work to share those lessons learned and knowledge across organizations.
My role as the Agency Chief Knowledge Officer then in close coordination with our CKO team is to convene and to oversee those Chief Knowledge Officer activities. We place most knowledge responsibilities in organizations, but our policy concludes with responsibilities for every individual at NASA to gather and to contribute knowledge to support shared goals of mission success.
Host: The first CKO face-to-face meetings since the pandemic was held last month at NASA Headquarters. What were some of the key takeaways?
Smith: Oh, it was such a great meeting.
Our center and mission Director at Chief Knowledge Officers all meet on a quarterly basis to compare notes and to look for opportunities to collaborate. And for the past few years, we’ve been meeting virtually, but before 2020, we would meet in person twice a year. Those in-person meetings were very valuable for me in my previous position as the CKO for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate because they gave me the opportunity to hear what my peers were doing and to benchmark.
In my current role, I use those meetings to understand how people are tackling similar problems and to prioritize the resources our team provides to support those challenges.
It can be really difficult to set aside two days, especially when knowledge management is a collateral duty in addition to primary responsibilities in other areas for some members of our community. But we were really grateful to have active participation and engagement by the Chief Knowledge Officers throughout NASA.
One takeaway for me is that our community is truly dedicated to this task. We asked the Chief Knowledge Officers to share a few highlights and to weigh in on each other’s challenges, and they were phenomenal. People were very willing to ask thoughtful questions and to share examples and templates that others could adapt or apply for their own groups. Another takeaway is that CKOs are making important contributions to their centers and mission directorates. Knowledge management can seem to be diffuse or fuzzy if you haven’t performed that type of work before, but the CKOs are helping teams to gather lessons learned. They’re mapping knowledge and process flows to support better continuity when employees retire. They’re also helping to ensure that people have access to the knowledge they need to do their jobs.
And finally, this meeting also allowed our team to have some important conversations that just take a while to work through, including one about how we support diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives. Much of a CKO’s daily work is about ensuring that all voices are heard and that knowledge is made available. And those DEIA initiatives provide ways to strengthen knowledge sharing by providing access to diverse perspectives and reinforcing the importance of inclusive practices among teams.
Knowledge management tools and resources can support DEIA initiatives by encouraging communications across demographic and other boundaries. Inclusion is one of NASA’s core values, and Chief Knowledge Officers can help to reinforce that in the course of our work every day. So that was a special inspiration to me in conversation with the community.
Host: What are NASA’s current challenges with knowledge management?
Smith: There are two big themes that come to mind for me. Those are knowledge continuity and lessons learned. And there’s also one enduring challenge around devoting resources to support the work, and that also came up in the CKO face-to-face.
So first on knowledge continuity, like many others in the aerospace industry and across the federal government, we are very concerned about the impact of retirement and attrition on our workforce. In December 2020, we noticed a trend of Chief Knowledge Officers who are being asked to address many impending retirements, more than previously. This will be a long-term challenge for us to address, but we’ve already made important progress in that area.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, lessons learned can be a very tricky initiative. People tend to think of lessons as packets of information that can be easily contained in a database and quickly retrieved, but there’s a whole life cycle process associated with lessons learned that needs to be shored up, and we are working to communicate that so people can be better equipped to capture and to share those lessons.
And then around this resource question. So, the CKO community works in a very resource-constrained environment. The value obtained by good knowledge management can pay extraordinary returns. You can reduce average time to competency by months or years. With a well-managed knowledge continuity initiative, you can improve reliability in group decision-making through formal knowledge sharing processes. You can also just deliver sustained performance improvements when you put in place a standard pause-and-learn practice.
Those are just a few really quick examples of things people are doing every day. But making the trade-offs to support those efforts, that can be challenging. We don’t have a perfect solution for this, but supporting knowledge sharing among the community can help CKOs to build their diagnostic capabilities to help them to determine the best tool for a particular challenge, and that can ensure some stronger and more immediate results for their organizations. So, even in a resource-constrained environment, they can make the best use of those resources they have.
Host: Are there ongoing initiatives to address the challenges?
Smith: I’m very glad to say there are, at least for knowledge continuity and lessons learned.
In response to the knowledge continuity challenge, I convened a NASA knowledge capture and transfer working group in 2021. That group was led by Michael Bell and by Susan Snyder, and it included representatives from every mission directorate and nearly every center. That group reviewed current practices across the agency. They conducted a really wide-ranging survey to get a better sense of what was happening in different environments. And then they identified solutions, ways to improve knowledge continuity and mission, program/project teams, and we published a peer-reviewed NASA special publication ensuring knowledge continuity during employee transitions — it’s publicly available — which included some recommendations to develop processes, templates, and guidance to support departures and onboarding and communicate those practices across the agency. We also developed and published an accompanying toolkit with the help of folks from our community as well as support folks within our team, and introduced it in a webinar attended by hundreds of NASA personnel.
So, one takeaway from this is that I think it is important to reinforce that this is a challenge that can be met. Even if you only have a few weeks notice about an upcoming retirement for someone on your team, there are tools available to help prioritize the most critical knowledge, the most critical lessons from those people.
One other takeaway is that the teams that do best with knowledge continuity are the ones who make it part of their everyday culture, and that’s also achievable. We have resources to support that on the website, too, and CKOs are well-prepared to support teams that need help in doing this.
So, NASA teams have adopted those new resources to improve knowledge transfer results. We’ve also seen some great applications of continuity books, knowledge transfer checklists, and overall improvements in competence in using these methods that simply weren’t there three years ago. I think they’ve made really important progress and we’ll continue to support that.
On the lessons learned front, I partnered with Michael Bell and the CKO community again to help reinvigorate our lessons learned program. At NASA, we have a central Lessons Learned Information System. Many of those lessons are available to the public. We also have other specific lessons learned repositories, depending on center needs and functions. And one advantage of the agency’s federated approach to knowledge management is that it supports those lessons learned processes at different levels of the organization, allowing the agency to focus on capturing operational and technical lessons learned specific to local stakeholders.
However, from time to time, there are these questions about how to navigate, how to find lessons across centers or missions. So, in support of this, our team worked with the Chief Program Management Officer and the Program/Project Management Board to collect some practices, what was working well around lessons learned, what we could strengthen, and to prioritize our actions. And what we found we needed to do first was to clarify the different elements of the lessons learned life cycle in order to help CKOs and the teams they support to determine where they needed to focus attention. And that can differ really greatly among centers and projects.
So, we call these life cycle elements, collect, record, disseminate, and apply. For example, in the collect phase, teams gather, they share lessons typically in a less formal environment. It’s kind of sharing stories, processing knowledge together. In the record phase teams determine how best to capture their lessons. On video, in a formal database, and presentations, some variety of all three. In the disseminate phase then, the lessons are shared beyond the team. That includes things like courses and webinars, large scale communications. And then finally, in the apply phase, lessons are applied through checklists, through policy fixes, through process improvements, so we continue good practices and reduce the likelihood of making the same mistake more than once.
By articulating these phases, we can clarify with groups their greatest priorities. And for instance, we heard about challenges in the dissemination area, which surprised us. We thought that people struggled most with the record phase, but it seems like they needed more assistance in helping to get the word out and in understanding where to go to find lessons that existed. In response to that need, the CKO community established criteria, and they established a process to help highlight selected lessons learned to broad agency audiences. The group also clarified processes around alignment of those lessons. This was very important to us, given the potential for procurement or personnel-sensitive information that could be contained in a lesson.
One important observation of the group was that maximizing the benefits to broadening sharing lessons across the agency requires CKO involvement and a high degree of trust between projects and CKOs and between or among those agency organizations. This was not really an expectation for us going in. It’s something that we almost took as a given, but it was a really helpful reminder that effective knowledge management requires humans in the loop.
While it is very tempting for us to look at artificial intelligence options to support initiatives like these, and there are places where we’re doing things with that, we need to remember also that technology doesn’t fix our knowledge problems on its own. It doesn’t wave a magic wand. But knowledge experts can help us construct technology in a way that makes better use of knowledge.
We use our lessons learned systems as memory systems, and it’s very important for CKOs to be a resource for lessons learned for their communities so that they can make the best use of those resources. As a result of this work, we are reinforcing, we’re incentivizing participation in the lessons learned program, and we see this as a benefit to all NASA programs and projects.
Host: What excites you most about the future of NASA knowledge sharing and learning and development?
Smith: There is a lot to be excited about.
First, there are notions that culture is impossible to manage, and it’s really not. It takes partnership. That’s one of the reasons I so value the relationships we maintain with the Chief Engineer and the NASA Chief Program Management Officer. It takes long-term commitment, but you can work on culture and you can build competency and knowledge sharing. At NASA, we treat knowledge sharing as a competency because we know you can develop the skill, and the best way to develop a knowledge sharing competency is through practice.
We also think it’s important for people to be well-placed throughout the organization to help steward and maintain our knowledge sharing culture. We have lots of different tools in the knowledge services toolkit. You want to be able to pick the right tool for the job, and it helps to have expert guides to help you do that. So, in that way, I’m excited about the potential for the NASA knowledge community, both the Chief Knowledge Officers and the APPEL POCs who help us provide quality learning and development opportunities to the NASA technical workforce, to continue to work as a team to achieve great results in support of the NASA mission.
And then finally, for me, the most rewarding aspect of my work is the chance to see people learn together. It is tremendously exciting to help someone gain understanding of a concept or a way to solve a problem that they didn’t have before. We often think of learning as something that happens in a classroom setting, but if you pay attention and listen carefully, you can learn incredibly important things from your colleagues and your team. And it’s a great honor to help people share their knowledge and contribute to the NASA mission in this way. So, I am very excited about the future of NASA knowledge sharing and learning and development in that area.
Host: Well, Tiffany, it’s been great talking with you about this. It’s been so interesting. Thank you so much for joining us.
Smith: Thank you so much for the chance to talk with you today. I hope that all of our listeners can find ways to partner and to develop solutions that support their missions.
Host: Tiffany’s bio and links to topics discussed during our conversation are available at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
If there’s a guest or topic you’d like for us to feature in a future episode, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL – that’s APP-el – and use the hashtag Small Steps, Giant Leaps.
As always, thanks for listening.