posted 1 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 2
Exploring the universe
On 31 January 2003, the Nasa portal quietly debuted as the world slept. Ten hours later 75 million people turned to www.nasa.gov to understand what had happened to the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew. Jeanne Holm outlines how the agency applied its knowledge-management practices to overcome the challenge of sharing knowledge during and after the crisis.
KM on the front lines
For the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the internet is how most people find out what is happening at the space agency. In an effort to revitalise and unite Nasa’s four million public-facing web pages, and focus on inspiring and informing the public, Nasa recently revamped its websites. Moving from a distributed network of very different sites towards an integrated online communication channel, a new portal was deployed that integrated a content-management solution, search technologies, dynamic portals, interactive multimedia, and an ‘anytime, anywhere, anyone’ publishing model that enabled knowledge sharing between all Nasa employees.
The goal was simple: engage the public, share Nasa’s knowledge with the world and inspire the next generation of explorers as only Nasa can. The results were dramatic and delivered a dynamic, engaging view of the US space agency and its far-reaching work supported by distributed teams throughout the global aerospace community.
The portal, launched on 1 February 2003, was expected to receive around 142,000 hits per day. Within hours of deployment, the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy occurred and the portal handled 75 million hits on the first day, and over 500 million visits in the first month. The team dynamically changed the design, information architecture and publishing capabilities to meet this unexpected need. Over the following months, the Nasa portal has provided nearly 2 billion pieces of information, including the live launch of two spacecraft to Mars, ongoing information about the Columbia accident investigation and the memorial service for our fallen heroes, and updates on hurricanes.
Setting the stage for KM
In addition to capturing and sharing knowledge for a specific project or for future projects, Nasa has a duty to share its findings and knowledge with the world at large. The latest in a series of offerings from Nasa’s knowledge-management team, the portal facilitates knowledge sharing between the Nasa team and the public.
Each activity of the KM team focuses on a specific concern facing our missions or researchers and partners with other organisations to deliver a capability that helps solve that problem. In the case of the Nasa portal, the KM team, sponsored by the chief information officer, delivers the infrastructure and processes to support the content and user-focused vision of the public-affairs organisation.
In 1998, Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) looked at how knowledge-management practices might help manage the high levels of information employees needed and created when conducting space research and sending spacecraft to other planets. After benchmarking with many companies and performing a meta-analysis of 45 case studies, JPL moved ahead with a system-engineering approach to KM. This benchmarking led to a clear understanding of the factors necessary for KM to succeed. These critical success factors are still true today and form the core of Nasa’s KM efforts:
- Culture – First and foremost, the culture must encourage knowledge sharing across organisational boundaries and reward people for doing so;
- Knowledge architecture – There must be a planned, strategic approach to how and why certain activities are chosen;
- Information technology infrastructure – A robust infrastructure must be available (either built internally or outsourced) for sharing electronic information;
- Supporting services – People (not just systems) need to be available to help others understand how and when to use KM processes and applications.
The main issues that drove Nasa to look at KM as a serious solution to emerging problems focused on two things: people and safety. The Nasa workforce is ageing – in some areas, more than 50 per cent of our workforce is eligible for retirement. Coupling a mandate to downsize the government workforce in the 1990s with a scarcity of experts and an expanding number of projects has led to a fragile situation. With the specialised knowledge Nasa often needs, it is difficult to replace people’s expertise as they walk out the door. The concern over nurturing this essential workforce is compounded by the complexity of the missions we undertake and the need to capture and share lessons learnt to fly safer missions.
When an agency-wide team was formed in January 2000 to address these concerns, Nasa’s chief information officer at that time, Lee Holcomb, issued a broad call for team membership. Bringing together cultural anthropologists, technologists, librarians and scientists, the Nasa knowledge-management team was formed. In the last year, we expanded the sponsorship of our activities to include both human resources and engineering, which provide the people, process and technology leadership necessary to make KM initiatives succeed.
The strategic plan and goals
The first task the team faced was to ensure we had representation from all key areas within the organisation and then set forth a strategic plan that aligned the main strategies, drivers and initiatives throughout Nasa. The plan focuses on:
- Sustaining Nasa’s knowledge across missions and generations, and identifying and capturing the information that exists across Nasa;
- Helping people find, organise and share the knowledge we already have by efficiently managing knowledge resources;
- Increasing collaboration and facilitating knowledge creation and sharing by developing techniques and tools to enable teams and communities to collaborate across the barriers of time and space.
Turning goals into reality
The place where most KM efforts face difficulties is in trying to translate their goals and strategies into operational reality. The best plans often fail because goals are too far-reaching or unrelated to the core business of the organisation. At other times, failures in KM occur because systems or applications are deployed but not provided as an end-to-end operational service. In the case of Nasa, the knowledge-management team has focused its efforts on proving the operational viability of bridging the most critical knowledge gaps (more on the activities of the team can be found at http://km.nasa.gov).
Since our strategy looked at people, process and technology as a framework for success, we decided to work first on the people issues. We attacked the problems of finding experts, capturing lessons learnt and storytelling. Initiatives in these areas included the Know Who system that lists experts, their expertise and their availability to work on or support projects. A re-design of the lessons-learnt information system (http://llis.nasa.gov) included an increase from 200 to 2,300 lessons captured, and a subscription service that allows lessons to be delivered directly to an engineer via e-mail or their personalised portal. Two notable efforts in storytelling are focused first on sharing key lessons by active project managers through the Academy of Program and Project Leadership (http://appl.nasa.gov) and through informal and inspirational stories that communicate culture and historical context through the JPL library (http://beacon.jpl.nasa.gov). A study of our recognition and awards process led to us including knowledge-sharing language into individual and team awards.
As we moved forward, we worked towards integrating our distributed teams and resources. The deployment of the Nasa portal and a companion portal, Inside Nasa, are bringing together distributed publishing processes, knowledge-generation activities, and web-based resources. Inside Nasa focuses on resources employees need for making quicker decisions and conducting day-to-day business. With integrated e-mail access and secure instant messaging, Inside Nasa is the place to go to connect with the Nasa workforce. Collaborative environments provide global teams with a shared space for both synchronous and asynchronous sharing. As a team moves from an initial design concept through to the construction of the final hardware that will land on another planet, all their information and collective knowledge is gathered and captured. Integration with the policies and work of other groups (such as archivists and historians) allows us to ensure that once records are captured, they are managed and made available to other teams and researchers, now and in the future.
In the future, we will be focusing on employing technologies to enhance our ability to mine the data within Nasa’s petabytes of content, promote e-learning and virtual collaboration, and enhance the ability to automate decision making.
As a case study of how these services are delivered, the Nasa portal provides an excellent example.
Architecting for success, managing through disaster
Citizens interact with Nasa in many ways, but we reach the highest number of people through the web. This is essential to understanding how the portal contributes to the success of our missions. People come to Nasa to get timely, accurate and accessible information to make decisions about how to treat the environment, to grasp the significance of investments in America’s research and development for our long-term economic growth, and to understand our place in the universe. They also come to be entertained, engaged and excited about space exploration, and to be a part of, if only virtually, the greatest endeavours our world can envision. Sharing this knowledge and this excitement with the public is essential to make Nasa’s missions a success.
The Nasa portal is the public-facing view of the agency over the web. With over 100,000 items published in its first six months, the portal is the primary mechanism for Nasa to provide up-to-the-minute information to the public. It’s all there, ranging from images from the surface of Mars to updates on returning the Space Shuttle to flight. The portal’s interface focuses first and foremost on the people who care about the exploration of Earth and space: kids, students, educators, media, the public, scientists and researchers. Behind the scenes, nearly 100,000 stories, images and documents provide a breadth of knowledge for people to learn about, understand and dream of exploring the heavens above and the Earth around us.
There is no better example of how the public and Nasa interact than the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. In the first 48 hours after the portal came online, citizens requested and received 220 million pieces of information. What visitors needed most was authoritative information about what had happened to the seven astronauts. The media came to the site in droves and found structured, breaking news and background material for their use. Teachers and students visited to understand what had happened and to discuss it in class. Applicants to the Educator Astronaut programme were responding to let us know that they still wanted to fly and be part of the nation’s space programme. The portal supported all these efforts without a glitch, enabling the missions to focus on dealing with the issues at hand and communicating with the public.
The portal’s infrastructure includes a content-management system, search engine and spider, customisation capability, and separation of content from presentation through easily updated templates. Hosting is outsourced to alleviate the peak traffic from Nasa’s internal networks and to utilise good practices. Workflow in the publishing processes allows individualised support for each area. Governed by an editorial board led by the Public Affairs organisation, the portal integrates the message with the media.
Since the portal was created using rapid-application-development (RAD) methods (just four weeks from concept approval to launch), the initial requirements were met quickly with our key partners. Using these same methods, the portal team continues to deliver iterative functionality (personalisation, enhanced navigation and deeper content) to meet emerging requirements from the public and Nasa. Because of this, the portal and its infrastructure remain fresh and we expect to be able to sustain it effectively and efficiently in an ever-changing environment.
Now that the portal infrastructure is in place, Nasa has a sustainable, expandable framework through which it can reach the public. Supported by a federated publishing process that allows anyone in the agency to create content, the portal will integrate content or connect to all of Nasa's distinct public sites.
As the more straightforward activities have been completed, our KM efforts have focused on integrating KM practices into the project and mission lifecycle (the ‘design to deployment to operation’ concept that all missions follow at Nasa). For example, at the inception stage, managers must review the Lessons Learnt Information System to understand applicable lessons that will help deliver a successful project. Use of the Technical Questions Database at key review points assures that the accumulated wisdom of Nasa’s specialists is brought to bear through asking clear and pointed questions, even if that person is not present at the review. And, throughout the lifecycle, mentoring and training is made available through the use of just-in-time team support, recruitment of recently retired experts and team-based support.
A sustainable solution
In each of the services managed by members of the KM team, the ability to transfer our methodology and approach, down to the technical architecture, is one of the cornerstones of our plan. Use of open standards, commercially available solutions and an open architecture has ensured this. Systematically, we gather requirements from our customers (citizens and Nasa employees and partners) and benchmark with other organisations before designing the systems and services we offer. Specifically, we take a KM-based approach to ensure that good practices in knowledge management, the technology marketplace and communications are adapted. As we develop such systems, we keep in close contact with many other government agencies, industry and world leaders in the field to share lessons learnt.
As the latest example of this, the Nasa portal delivers a sustainable solution for an engaging communication vehicle with the public. Designed with good practices in mind, built at speed to citizen requirements and using leading market solutions, the Nasa portal stood up to the ultimate test in its first hours of deployment – providing key information to the world and critical support to Nasa’s mission in a moment of crisis. The existing framework allows for expansion to cover our broad range of web content and programmes, making the portal a sustainable solution, flexible enough to cover changing missions and handle graphic re-designs without having to overhaul the entire site.
Most importantly, the portal makes information easy to find and presents it in an engaging, multimedia-rich environment that draws people back. This makes the portal a key element in Nasa's mission to inspire the next generation of explorers as only Nasa can.
Jeanne Holm leads Nasa’s knowledge-management team and is chief knowledge architect at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org