Knowledge Management at NASA: It Ain’t Rocket Science

Apr 18, 2016 by Courtney Calvin, Jenny Barker, Bari Rabin, and Monalisa Salib Comments (1)

NASA does Knowledge Management (KM)—and they do it well—because lives are at stake. With one of the strongest KM reputations out there, NASA recently presented for the USAID Knowledge Management Reference Group how it identified the most effective way for them to share knowledge and lessons learned.

In his presentation on March 30, Chief Knowledge Officer of the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate (HEOD) Patrick Johnson spoke about NASA’s approach to Critical Knowledge Management, demonstrating their use of recorded video interviews with experts and internal marketing tools to capture and share knowledge and experience. With a lean team and an on-site studio, they have developed the cache to make their interview videos on demand. The subjects seem to enjoy and are motivated by their 15 minutes of fame. One of the keys to the success of their method has been to approach subjects on their terms. All KM efforts are focused on meeting NASA’s needs, not pushing KM tools.

One of the best KM practices that NASA employs is legacy interviews. They capture not only immediate lessons learned but those gleaned over long careers at NASA to ensure that as people retire or leave the agency their legacies and institutional knowledge are not lost to time.

Another lesson learned from NASA is the danger of complacency. To avoid operational failures, it’s important for teams to follow procedures from end to end even in low-risk environments. To hear an example of a close call with complacency in space, watch this video on NASA’s YouTube channel.

Even the experts know they don’t know everything. In fact, NASA looks to other experts in KM to continue learning. Their KM inspirations include: FBI, Merck, Department of Transportation, and Boeing, among others.

We were surprised to learn that the HEOD KM team does not place emphasis on evaluating their impact. While they count the usual metrics, such as page views and downloads, measuring the use of KM tools is not as significant in their work as it is in ours. We speculate that this is because NASA has already earned its status as a learning organization and the value of KM is self-evident in accidents avoided, mission success ratios, and most importantly, lives saved. For NASA the impact is often immediate whereas change in the USAID realm takes years to come about. Because KM is commonly considered good management and process at NASA, the KM team is able to focus on KM and learning rather than finding multiple ways to measure their success.

As we work to prove the value of KM in the international development field do you think we can look forward to a time when it is as routine and accepted as it is for NASA?


With regards to the last section of the post, I will share a slightly different perspective.  One reason the concept of evaluation of impact is less developed within NASA may relate to the broader context of what constitutes success or failure in a NASA mission vs. a USAID project.  A NASA mission has clear success criteria from the start and it's much easier to determine whether a mission was a success or failure than it is in the case of a USAID project.  Failures are much, much more visible, obvious (can't pretend they didn't happen), and they get a great deal of attention in terms of lessons and corrective actions.  There is no need for the type of complex, rigorous impact evaluation that is aspired to (and rarely achieved) in the USAID (or international development) world. In short, NASA doesn't have that impact assessment/M&E discourse. M&E isn't part of the vocabulary.  On the other hand, there is much greater rigor in terms of project management methodology, including risk management, within the NASA world. 

Since I implement KM within one of the NASA centers, I can say without hesitation that it is not and should never become routine.  Routine leads to complacency.  It needs to be constantly reinforced, reassessed and improved.    The real strength is in the leadership support and overall learning culture, but in the trenches, it's a lot of work to get things done, like everywhere else.

PS:  I have spent 10+ years in each of these two worlds. 

posted 4 years ago