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How Do Rocket Scientists Learn? (aka, knowledge management lessons learned at Goddard, NASA)

Originally posted at my blog: http://wethegoverati.wordpress.com

Rocket scientists, software developers, systems engineers, and all the other people that work at Goddard helping us better understand the earth and space are smart. That’s a given. But how do they improve their practice, learn from each other, and continue to improve on overwhelmingly complex tasks?

In a huge and complex organization such as Goddard, Knowledge Management is usually a core component of organizational learning. I’ve done some work in Knowledge Management in the past, and obsessively read Harvard Business Review articles on the topic, but I was really excited to dig into it in the context of space exploration. I spent a few weeks reading as much as I could on the topic, and was fortunate enough to attend an internal workshop led by the extraordinary Ed Rodgers, head of Knowledge Management at Goddard.

Here’s what I learned.

Knowledge Management at Goddard is About People

NASA creates things that don’t exist yet. Doing that takes incredible talent. At NASA, the talent lies not in its complex technologies, shuttles, spaceships, or intranets, but rather in its people. The products are certainly breathtaking and wondrous, but the success of the things that come out of NASA are a reflection of the knowledge of and collaboration between thousands of brilliant people. This point was really driven home at the Knowledge Management conference I attended…according to one participant:

“we didn’t hire smart people so we could tell them what to do; we hired them to tell us what to do.”

NASA’s work is organized around Missions. When a Mission is stood up people from across the center are brought together to work on the project. In theory, people with similar backgrounds and skills should be interchangeable. That’s where knowledge management comes in – to make sure that anyone from a particular unit that is assigned to a project has all the skills and knowledge developed in that content area within the unit. Each mission should get the knowledge of the whole department when you work with an individual.

The case study ”Goddard Space Flight Center: Building a Learning Organization (B)”[1] summarizes this point really well:

Knowledge Management is “better application of collective knowledge to the individual problem. So we need to develop some systems and do a little more work to share collective knowledge and make us smarter.”

It makes sense then, that Knowledge Management at NASA Goddard is people-centric:

The chart appeared in “The NASA Learning Organization – How NASA Reapplies Its Knowledge for Mission Success” (2009) and describes how Goddard reapplies its knowledge.

Here’s the same chart, broken up another way:

So as an individual trying to learn, I have my own experiences, which I can reflect on and share with others during pause-and-learns, through job rotations, case studies, and lessons learned documents. In turn, I can learn from case studies and lessons learned from other projects, which I can engage with by simply reading about, attending workshops, or engaging with my peers.

Main Takeaway: In some places, Knowledge Management is about creating systems that get around people’s knowledge deficiencies. At Goddard, it really seems like it is about empowering people to share and reflect on what they know best. It’s a subtle distinction, but I really like that they put people in the center of this work, and start from a place of abundant knowledge in people rather than a lack of information in systems.

Social Media Can Enhance Learning (but relationships matter)

The Knowledge Management life-cycle at Goddard seems solid to me; the focus is on the individual’s learning processes, structures, and needs, rather than content management systems, which is already leaps and bounds ahead of the curve, and there are many practices and resources to facilitate the process. Because of that, the system is unique in that is dovetails nicely with a socialized knowledge management system. People are already used to residing within a learning organization, and social software will enhance the on-the-ground process that are already so robust.

Kent Greenes made a presentation at the KM workshop I attended, and strengthened my intuition with an interesting discussion about how social media can interact with Knowledge Management and learning:

The is a very simple chart that goes a long way in explaining how Social Networks can enhance knowledge management and learning.

The important thing to note is that whether you collaborate or simply connect, the strength of your ties will have an impact on what you are able to do. If you really want to be able to get rapid, trustworthy answers or enhance or accelerate results on a project, it will be important to develop those strong ties.

Main Takeaway: Social media has a lot of potential, but you need to think about how to facilitate different kinds of (online and offline) relationships between people so that their thinking is improved, innovation occurs, they can get quick answers to complex problems, in order to enhance and accelerate business outcomes.

Learning in Public is Hard, but Worth It.

One of the great benefits of using social media as a KM tool is that you are creating and capturing the knowledge at the same time. However, in order for this to truly work people have to be willing to collaborate in the open throughout the project lifecycle. “Learning in Public” is scary for many reasons – people can find and cling to outdated information and users are exposing their knowledge during a vulnerable time in the project (i.e. when they don’t yet have all the answers). However, during this part of the process is when learning can be most valuable. If you share what you know and what you don’t know in the middle of a project, you give people an opportunity to share specific knowledge that can help you in the moment. If it works, this can help save time and money.

I haven’t looked into how this happens at Goddard, but at our humble little firm, we are all about learning in public – we developed our business out in the open, are growing out in the open, and are projects are experimental and very public. So far, this philosophy has helped us tremendously.

Main Takeaway: Sometimes learning in public is a difficult process, but the feedback, support, and resultant improvements are worth it.

With that, as always, your comments and thoughts on this post are much appreciated and adored.


[1] Gerry Yemen and Professor James G. Clawson Darden Business Publishing University of Virginia Daren School Foundation, Charlottesville, VA 2005 Back to post

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: All opinions and opinion-like ideas in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center or ASRCfederal or ARTS or any other person, agency, or organization. Furthermore, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA, or any other agency or organization listed in this disclaimer. Its just me!

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I’m like you Yasmin – I came to KM through social media but find it inherently fascinating as a recovering sociologist. I think KM mainly comes down to people as well – properly making the system trustworthy, incentivized, and super easy.

Yasmin Fodil

Thanks for your thoughts, Steve. KM is really interesting, and touches a whole lot of different disciples. I agree with you on making it trustworthy, incentivized and super easy. The person who figures out how to do knowledge management in an effortless way – so that tactic and explicit knowledge are documented and learned without any additional work – will take the cake.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Yasmin – They’ve been trying for the last thirty years to crack that problem and no luck so far. Given the complexity of human knowledge and nature, I don’t think there is an easy solution. But we have certainly gained a lot in trying to reach this goal.

Stephen Dixon

@Yasmin – Great breakdown of KM and the role people play. I see KM as a balancing act between explicit and tacit knowedge. It appears that social media, applied properly, can help us better leverage the tacit knowedge in an organizations people. Thanks for the post.

Yasmin Fodil

@Bill – agreed, definitely a difficult task, but a worthy goal, and an issue that’s super interesting to grapple with!
@ Paul – that’s so cool! I haven’t had the chance to work directly with Ed (other than the workshop) but am very impressed with his work! I’ll definitely say hi if I see him around!
@ Stephen – thanks for your comment. I agree – properly using social media for internal comms can go a long way towards helping manage the tacit knowledge piece, and I think there’s lots of room to experiment with that in companies and govt agencies!