posted 1 Nov 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 3
Five minutes with… Nasa
Jacquie Bran, project manager with the Knowledge Management events team, spent five minutes talking to Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect within the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Nasa, about the organisation’s experiences implementing a KM programme.
When and why did you first consider incorporating knowledge management?
Nasa’s knowledge management programme grew from the recognition of an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity was that newer, web-based technologies would give us the chance to deliver integrated decision-making capabilities to people at their desks, and would allow our distributed teams to collaborate any time, any place, and as a result fly safer missions. The challenge we faced, and continue to face, is that a large percentage of our workforce is nearing retirement and we want to ensure they have the opportunity to pass on their knowledge and learning to the younger Nasa team members.
What have you done to encourage and promote knowledge sharing in such a diverse environment, and what barriers have you faced as a result?
We have a variety of programmes in place at local centres and at the agency level to encourage knowledge sharing. Some are explicit methods, such as mentoring, storytelling and lessons-learnt systems. Some are less explicit, like infusing knowledge-sharing language into our rewards and recognition programmes. The challenge for us has been to help busy people, working on important tasks, to have the time to share what they know beyond the boundaries of their current project or work team. We have a variety of IT systems that help us to do so, like our Lessons Learned Information System, but true understanding comes from speaking with others and learning by modelling behaviours. This is harder to do effectively in such a distributed environment.
How did you progress to implementing an infrastructure to support KM and what changes were necessary to ensure its success?
We started small and built on early quick wins. We first spoke to our key customers (our flight projects and researchers) and tried to understand their key ‘pain point’. We then worked hard on delivering a cost-effective solution to their pain. In this case, the solution was a web-based project library that embedded the rules for knowledge sharing into the tool. Once that system was adopted and was deemed to be a success, many of the other components could follow. We built key partnerships with organisations we were dependent upon. For example, we work closely with our data management organisation and human resources to ensure programmes as diverse as metadata standards and mentoring can come to fruition.
Were cultural aspects something that you had to consider when thinking about your KM strategy?
Absolutely. From our early benchmarking, we realised that cultural issues would be the single most critical success factor for us. We build all of our systems and structure our process solutions to recognise the existing culture and guide any cultural changes we might want to effect. For example, it would be simpler for us to deploy an experts’ directory that imports all employees and fields of work into a single database. However, we have a system that allows people to voluntarily put their profiles in the system because we recognise that not everyone is willing or able to answer questions. When someone is under a deadline on a project, they need to be able to focus on that task. Alternatively, we don’t want someone calling an ‘expert’ in the system and not getting a timely and friendly answer.
What are the main lessons you have learnt and are there any new milestones on the horizon?
From our experience, our key recommendations are to:
- Enlist, encourage and empower employees to effectively share knowledge as they do their regular jobs. That’s the best way to get KM in place and ensure it stays in place;
- Keep in mind specific solutions for specific customers while developing enterprise-wide solutions. It is important that you keep true to your customer’s ever-changing needs;
- Stay focused on long-term objectives (in our case, building a learning organisation and creating an explicit organisational memory), while continuing to meet short-term needs.
The focus of our upcoming work will be on understanding and supporting cultural change, optimising data exchange among our partners, providing access to our distributed experts and moving towards more integrated decision-making capabilities. We have a 25-year roadmap for our KM activities that relates to our long-term mission needs, which you can see at http://km.nasa.gov/what-is-km.html.
Jeanne Holm is chief knowledge architect within the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Nasa. She can be contacted at: email@example.com