In this episode, we sit down with Jim Rostohar, Chief Knowledge Officer for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to explore the vital role of knowledge sharing within the organization.
Join us as Jim Rostohar shares insights into the importance of fostering a healthy knowledge sharing environment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Discover how data science, tools like Goldfire Search, and breaking down data silos contribute to mission success. Jim also discusses the evolving landscape of knowledge management, emphasizing the need for organic sharing and dispelling the myth that knowledge should be hoarded. Explore how effective communication is driving NASA’s mission forward.
In this episode you’ll learn about:
- How timely access to knowledge saved valuable resources for the Orion CMUS (Crew Module Uprighting System) team.
- The evolving landscape of knowledge management and the role of organic sharing.
- The preservation of expertise within NASA, especially in the face of employee turnover, and the efforts to capture the oral histories of key personnel.
Jim Rostohar is the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In this role, he oversees knowledge management activities, conducts research, and plays a key role in fostering collaboration efforts. Jim’s expertise and leadership have been instrumental in enhancing knowledge sharing within the organization.
Teresa Carey (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, your window into the world of knowledge and innovation at NASA. I’m Teresa Carey and I’m taking over for Deana Nunley. It’s a big task, but I’m thrilled to be on this journey with you. Small Steps Giant Leaps is a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast. Our mission is simple. To introduce you to the remarkable individuals behind NASA’s incredible discoveries. So, whether you’re on the path to becoming a NASA rocket scientist or you’re like me, a space enthusiast at heart, then join us as we explore the cosmos of knowledge one step at a time.
So, today we’re diving into the world of knowledge sharing, a vital component of NASA’s continued success.
Joining us is Jim Rostohar the Chief Knowledge Officer for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. We are going to talk about how NASA fosters a culture of knowledge sharing and innovation. And hopefully we’ll touch on some of the remarkable examples of how sharing knowledge has made a significant impact on NASA’s missions. So, let’s get started with our guest Jim Rostohar.
Jim, thank you for talking with us today.
Rostohar: I’m happy to be here.
Host: Jim, your role involves designing architecture and conducting research for knowledge management activities. Can you share some insights into how you’ve approached enhancing knowledge sharing within the organization and what impact it’s had on NASA’s operations?
Rostohar: Well, there are a wide range of ways that we’ve done that, that we can get into. But I would start with the fact that a healthy knowledge sharing environment really has helped to contribute to and enhance our quality management efforts. And in some cases, our knowledge services have assisted in the development of corrective action plans. We also partner with our engineering directorate and support the engineering academy, and then we develop classroom materials that are drawn from our information in our databases.
Host: Can you tell me more about the tool? Like, where can you find things, ways to go through the tools for JSC knowledge online?
Rostohar: Yeah, sure. JSC Knowledge Online really is our clearinghouse. It is where we drive all of our traffic and do all of our work through, to, and through, and from. It’s available to anybody inside the firewall that has a NASA badge. At JSC Knowledge online, we have massive databases that are searchable through our KM search tool. We have case studies there. We have shuttle, ISS and EVA, which are spacewalk archives that you can search. We also have oral histories from astronauts, flight directors, and decision makers. I could go on and on, but we barely scratched the surface of what’s available on JSC Knowledge Online.
Host: When you look back at history, it’s clear that losing critical knowledge can have some pretty significant consequences. I can imagine, for instance, the shift from the Apollo program to the space shuttle era brought its own set of knowledge transfer challenges because it was a big shift in NASA’s space exploration efforts. Jim, could you share some insights into how NASA tackles the tricky task of retention and transfer of crucial knowledge within the organization, especially during major transitions like the one from Apollo to the space shuttle era?
Rostohar: We have something called the shuttle knowledge console, which basically takes a look at all systems and component level decisions that were made and it’s searchable so that people can go back and look at if, let’s say, they’re working on a motor or a pump that was actively used in the shuttle program and may have some insights to a future pump or motor in a future program, they can look at that. We also have archives from E. V. A. Or space walking. Every single spacewalk is documented what were right, what went wrong, what we learned from that. Also, similar thing with the ISS and their archives. We also have many panel discussions and lectures from the Apollo and Gemini days. And the important thing is, those contain discussions from people who were actually there. So, really important to gather those because as you know, people are aging, and so is our workforce. Also, we do oral histories where we sit down and record and then make a transcript. We do that with uh, astronauts, flight directors, engineers. That’s a really important thing so that we can use them later to answer a question, solve a problem, or close a knowledge gap.
Host: Yeah, I think that sounds really interesting and I want to listen to some of those oral histories. I bet they’re really fantastic.
Let’s talk about mobile technologies. I can’t help but think about how mobile technologies have really transformed the way we access information. I think about how smartphones have become such a crucial part of our lives. Could you share how NASA is adapting to this need or immediate access to knowledge, and what role mobile technologies and remote access play in making knowledge sharing more efficient and effective?
Rostohar: Sure. The need for KM is becoming more immediate. So, technologies that support KM, including those used for knowledge acquisition and case-based reasoning systems, online community forums, which we call expert finders, um, electronic discussion groups, which are very helpful and sometimes very fun too, uh, computer-based simulations and visual aid … visualizations. Those are things that our data scientists use every day and research and insight libraries. These are the deep dive libraries that contain the nuggets of gold that people can get down in and a mine through our search system. You know, many of these, not all of them, but we’re driving towards getting all of them mobile capable. It’s very valuable to have a mobile capability. As I say, I’ve sat in meetings before, myself, and looked things up right there to be able to contribute to the conversation. So, mobility is really important as we go forward.
Host: Yeah, it’s clear that knowledge practices have evolved over the years. The world is constantly changing and organizations like NASA have to adapt and stay at the forefront of knowledge management. So, as chief knowledge officer, could you share some insights into the most significant trends or cultural shifts that you’ve observed that are influencing knowledge management practices moving forward.
Are there any developments that stand out in this landscape?
Rostohar: Yeah, I think there are quite a few. But, um, KM is shifting from what I call from control to cultivation so that teams can share information organically. I think that what social media elements bring, when they’re blended with knowledge management, is a place where everybody wins.
Host: Mm hmm.
Rostohar: The other big trend centers around artificial intelligence or AI. We all have heard about it. In the era of information overload, AI can transform knowledge management into even more of a strategic asset.
Host: Yeah, AI has been a real game changer. Are there any specific knowledge management initiatives, either within NASA or even in other organizations, that you find particularly innovative or inspiring?
Rostohar: Well, interestingly enough, I think one of the things that KM can help with, and we’re seeing this, is enhancing onboarding and training practices.
Our knowledge sharing platform, JSC Knowledge Online, is one of the most useful resources for new hires. Often, they take a lot of time to contribute their ideas because they’re new and they feel nervous and they’re… they’re not readily opening up and expressing themselves in a group setting.
As a result, then we lose their interactive skills and their knowledge over time. We, we found that contribution and collaboration of new hires is just as important as our existing employees. We just need to make them feel more comfortable. So gone are the days when herd mentality drove the workforce.
Younger people are more inquisitive. They want to know how it works. They want to be a part of it on day one. And so that makes it important that we adjust not only our technology but our practices. And this is where KM is king, I think
Rostohar: I love what you have to say about new hires and the way they can contribute and integrating them right in, instead of the herd mentality. You know, I’m a new hire. This is my first interview for this podcast.
So, I love what you had to say about seamless integration of new hires.
Rostohar: That’s so true.
Host: Yeah. In your experience, what are the biggest challenges organizations face in encouraging employees to share knowledge readily and making it easy, easily accessible when needed? How does NASA address these challenges? And what innovative approaches are you exploring to tackle them?
Rostohar: I think some of the challenges, these have been challenges for as long as there has been a knowledge management program, and that is that people have data. They have their data. And they want to keep their data. And they don’t necessarily want to share their data, because they don’t want to share, necessarily, their mistakes.
Those are the most valuable things that we can learn from.
So, these silos of data that are around are probably one of our biggest challenges. Finding them, um, getting into them, and then allowing… agreeing… getting people’s agreement to allow us to index them to make them searchable through our KM search tool.
That way it benefits not just them, but everybody. Um, and so the other thing is, as I said, employee turnover, there’s a… the silver tsunami is coming. That’s when we’ve got a lot of baby boomers who are retirement eligible. And they’re leaving. And if we don’t sit down with them and capture some of their knowledge, then we are not doing, uh, our best job, because there… there’s so much data that people walk around with in their heads that is not written down somewhere.
Host: Yeah. It’s funny that you call it data in our heads because it’s really just the things that we learn in life, you know, going through the program and doing our jobs and just kind of becoming the professionals that we are. And that’s kind of what you’re talking about is capturing that before this whole swath of people retire and move on from NASA.
Rostohar: Yeah, there’s, there are two different–well, sometimes people say three–but two types of data. You know, the stuff that’s written down and the stuff that’s in your head and there’s a specific term for that…
Rostohar: Tacit knowledge, and that’s our walking around in our head knowledge, and explicit knowledge, those are the things that are written down in instructions and manuals and drawings and stuff like that.
Host: Tacit. Okay.
Rostohar: Tacit knowledge is what’s walking out the door. Explicit knowledge is explicitly written down somewhere that can be captured by future generations. But the tacit knowledge is what we really have to work at gathering and making sure that we get that before people leave.
Host: This tacit knowledge that you’re talking about, it can make a real difference. So, can you share something like tacit knowledge, or an informal tip or hack had a surprisingly positive impact on a project at NASA perhaps? And let’s talk a little bit more about how we can preserve these tips, even the ones that seem really trivial.
Rostohar: As far as informal tips or hacks, I would just say for myself, I come from a communications background, and that has lended it… it has lent itself very well to being able to publicize and kind of evangelize, um, the knowledge management program. Uh, I’m used to marketing story ideas and talking to people from different angles and drawing things out of them for an interview that the average person may not be aware of how to do. And so, that’s been kind of a tip for me because I can be in a conversation in an elevator and, uh, because I can communicate, I can share with people very quickly the value of KM. And, um, I can then use that as an opportunity to connect later with them and bring them into the fold when they may not have even looked at or cared about KM.
Host: Could you tell me a little bit about your vision for how knowledge sharing can continue to evolve and thrive within NASA and even beyond the years to come?
Rostohar: You know, well, some organizations, uh, still take on a department level approach to knowledge management. Leading businesses are really these days, increasing, shifting into a cross functional or a companywide sharing strategy. These organizations are implementing kind of a centralized knowledge management platform and opening it up to multiple departments or the entire organization, even.
Because really what it does is it leads to greater alignment around projects and goals.
And then more, more opportunities to be able to cross functionally collaborate and come up with in, you know, kind of innovative solutions across teams. That builds the strength of KM. It’s not just me or my team doing it. It’s we are doing it together with someone else. And that is powerful.
Host: In recent years, we’ve seen data science really work wonders in different fields, like take healthcare for instance. Data science can help predict disease, outbreaks, it can discover new drugs.
So given your role at NASA, you must have some really interesting stories about how data science has shaken things up here. Can you give a few examples that really stand out for you?
Rostohar: Yeah, well, um, knowledge managers that are armed with data science, like we are, and if we’re armed with the data science expertise, we can provide valuable insights to inform strategic decisions. We can mitigate risks, which at NASA is huge. You know, there’s a lot of talk about big data. We’ve heard that for years now. But big data analysis can expose bottlenecks, inefficiencies, process gaps. We’ve seen it here at JSC.
Host: So, tell me about the success of NASA’s Johnson Space Center’s Goldfire analytical search tool. How has this tool improved search capabilities, and can you share a specific instance where it might have made a difference in locating crucial information?
Rostohar: Sure, I’d be happy to, um, I’ll give you kind of an overview, then I’m going to share a success story, if that’s okay.
Host: Yeah, that sounds great.
Rostohar: Well, Goldfire is a commercial, off-the-shelf AI search tool. Um, we buy licenses, and anybody that is within NASA and has a NASA badge can, uh, log on to our website and use it. Um, it uses natural language processing technologies to read, understand, and learn from your data.
So that, um, it can give you a relative answer in context to your questions, make it easier for you to find a solution that actually works. It’s like a normal search engine on steroids. It’s, it’s pretty powerful.
We had a pretty good success story that we… we had many, but we like to tout this one. Um, there’s something called the Crew Module Uprighting System, or CMUS. This is a system that’s deployed in a water landing of a capsule. To return the, uh, capsule to the upright position after splashdown, these bags inflate so that they can extricate the astronauts.
The system on Orion particularly failed on EFT 1 test flight when three of the five CMS, uh, bags did not properly deploy. The Orion engineering team was working to improve the design. They were interested in finding some of the research that had been done during the Apollo program. Because if you remember, the Apollo program used similar, not the same, but similar CMUS system.
The team set out on an inner internal search, and they looked high and low. They were on an extremely tight schedule. Unfortunately, much of the early information that the team found was only available in photos.
This, coupled with the understanding that much of the data was passed on person-to-person, created a data void. We talked about tacit knowledge earlier. There’s where tacit knowledge does not help you if… if you break that chain, and those people are no longer available. So, the Knowledge Management Office had just started testing Goldfire back then, so we thought we’d offer that to the Orion engineer.
The engineer spent three hours using our Goldfire analytical search tool to run some of the same searches that he had previously done using the JSC standard search tool. The software returned results instantly, over 200 contextually relevant documents.
So, here’s the payoff. According to the engineer, the development of a test article would take two to three years and add an additional cost of several million dollars. Goldfire Analytical Search Tool became a game changer in terms of technical search capabilities that day.
Host: Yeah, it sounds like it, because two to three years is a long time, and you said you were on a tight deadline. What was the deadline?
Rostohar: They had two weeks. If they didn’t get the information they needed, they’d have to go in a totally different direction. And they’d have to start from scratch, or they’d have to build something differently than they were, they were headed down this other path.
Rostohar: But to give you an example, they went, they were so desperate, they went and called in fellas and gals that have retired and some of these guys had, um, old schematics and stuff in their attics, so they’d bring them in, blow the dust off, and lay them out on the table.
And they were somewhat helpful, but again, they didn’t have the exact, uh, information they were looking for. So, you know, they went to every corner they could. And then they came to us, and then it was like a bright light came on for them.
Host: Right? Then they get these 200 documents, it sounds like a lot to sift through, but when you imagine how much is out there and the Goldfire narrowed it down to 200, it probably doesn’t seem like so much.
Rostohar: Well, the other, the other beauty of Goldfire is not only will it sift it down, it could be a 500-page document, it’ll go into the page and highlight it.
Host: Right. As a podcaster and someone who works in audio, I feel like there’s a real value to those audio stories that you were talking about earlier, because a lot of times people will talk about things in more elaborate or more detailed ways and more nuanced ways than they would if you ask them to say the same thing in an email or write it down in an article or something. And certainly, all these different formats are valuable, but I think when, when you just sit down with someone in a room, and just tell me your story, tell me what you learned. And they end up saying a lot more than maybe what you might get in a, a written response.
Rostohar: Yeah, I would also say, the oral history program sits people down, exactly as you say, and you’re absolutely right. If you can sit somebody down and make them comfortable, I mean all of their memories and all of those historic pieces of data start flowing out and they are gold.
Host: Yeah. Yeah. I can imagine. I can imagine all the amazing stories at NASA, just in the, in an office and in space, all of it.
Host: Let’s talk about transparency and sharing experiences, both the good and the bad experiences. So, can you share an example of a situation where NASA’s commitment to sharing information–you had called it the good, the bad and the ugly–how has this level of transparency led to valuable insights or improvements?
Rostohar: Well, since coming to the KM community, I’ve observed that some individuals and organizations are collecting knowledge, but they’re keeping it to themselves. Um, you know, the basic… in my view, the basic premise of knowledge sharing is, well, sharing. And knowledge isn’t helpful if you keep it to yourself or locked up within your small group. Through our awareness efforts we’re hoping to change that in a positive way.
Host: Tell me about the My Best Mistake booklet.
Rostohar: So, um, My Best Mistake is a small booklet of lessons that have been learned from NASA employees and the NASA workforce. It was published several years back by headquarters. And, um, it helps you learn from mistakes. And that’s what this little booklet is all about.
Host: Can you give me an example of what might be a mistake in this My Best Mistake booklet?
Rostohar: These are all little vignettes. They’re very short. But it was a… it was a thing that people could learn from, and I want to share it. So, good for them. And that’s the kind of thing that we want to capture more and more of.
Host: Well, thank you so much for talking with me and sharing all of this.
Rostohar: Well, it was my pleasure
Host: Thank you for tuning in to Small Steps, Giant Leaps. For a transcript of the show and more information on Jim Rostohar and these topics, simply head over to our show notes at apple.nasa.gov/podcast. That’s spelled A P P E L.nasa.gov/podcast.
And while you’re there, if you’re curious to learn more about what APPEL Knowledge Services has to offer, don’t forget to explore our courses and publications.
I’m Teresa Carey, your crewmate in the world of learning. That’s all we have for today. May your steps towards knowledge be both small and mighty.