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GovLoop Member of the Week: Emma Antunes and Spacebook

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
– Captain James T. Kirk, start of every episode of the original TV series ‘Star Trek

While Captain Kirk spoke of going where no man has gone before, this week’s featured project – “Spacebook” – was conceived and implemented by an “Emmazing” woman. Meet Emma Antunes, the Web Center Manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Goddard Space Flight Center. She has boldly led NASA Goddard to explore the strange new world of social networks and helped her colleagues to discover that there is a vibrant new life and culture that can be created in an organization with innovative ideas and collaborative technology.

1. What was the impetus for creating “Spacebook”? Was there a clear business need? Was there a a high-level champion?

It was definitely related to our business. We’re not getting more people or more money, so how can we use social media to help us be more competitive, to take advantage of the great people and resources we already have? How can we use it to be more innovative, to increase project success and meet our strategic goals? It’s people and teams that do the science and build the spacecraft and do the exciting work NASA does. How can we better support them? I knew that if we could improve communication, get people to talk to each other and share information, we could make major strides towards breaking down the barriers to innovation. This started as an effort at my center, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and it was championed out of our Center Director’s office. That really helped make it an organizational effort, not just an IT thing.

2. Can you talk about the process for getting the project charter and navigating internal channels? How did you “make the case”?

It grew out of an intranet redesign effort. I’d had the idea in my back pocket for a while. Our Center Director’s office had just unveiled a new strategic plan, and this fit right into what they wanted to do. So from the beginning, I had support from my senior management, public affairs, and IT. I also found champions in unlikely places. It turned out that the more people I talked to, the more I discovered others were interested in doing something like this. Some for reasons of attracting and retaining the next generation workforce, some for encouraging innovation, some for other reasons. I did a lot of stakeholder outreach and met people throughout the organization. I also looked for other people using social media at work, and introduced myself. I wanted all the advice I could get from other early adopters!

3. What platform/software are you using and how did you make that decision?

We had some very clear constraints from the get-go. We took advantage of an agency resource (InsideNASA) that was underutilized. If we used the software they provided, it was free. If we wanted something else, we’d have to come up with funds. I didn’t have any funds, so…we started with Vignette, because that’s what was provided. Midway through the project, they came back to us and said, “Let’s try something else.” They’d found Liferay, an open source Java platform. It scared the pants off my developers to switch in the middle, but they checked it out, and we decided to risk it. It turned out to be the best thing we could have done. It does most of what we need out of the box. We’ve done a lot of customization to make it fit our design, and simplified it to be more of what our user community was ready for.

4. What were the policy, legal, security and other hurdles that you had to clear to move the project forward?

Security wasn’t as big a deal for us, because this is an internal application. We have controls in place. The bigger deal is managing change. The risks for Spacebook and other enterprise networks are really less about security and more about potential abuse or misuse, which is an HR thing. My challenge has really been in consciousness-raising with people unfamiliar with how to use social media for work. We have enough policy to cover it – privacy, appropriate use, information publishing guidance, etc. Making people feel more comfortable with change, and explaining the benefits, have been really important to keep things moving forward.

I worked with legal early on. I started with the patent counsel, because we’d met in a workshop previously. His office was very internet-savvy, and he’s turned out to be a champion for the project (It was his office that OK’d the name “Spacebook”). He helped educate the other lawyers in his office, who were much more familiar with employment and privacy law than they were with Internet law. I also got a lot of help from a senior HQ lawyer I met on twitter – she supported what we were doing and helped champion it through the process. I approached legal the same way I did with all my other stakeholders – get their input on what we wanted to do, and asked for their help on making it work.

5. Now that it’s been up and running, how would you describe the early network behavior? How are people using it?

What we’re finding is word of mouth has driven a lot of use with early adopters, but good old-fashioned demos and talking to people were just as important. The concept is still new to a lot of people, so the more I can explain how it helps with common tasks and points of pain, the more people get the concept and see the value.

6. Do you have any early success stories to share?

It turned out that our equipment exchange forum, where people can look for and offer things like office supplies, cables, and other equipment, will let us do better with idled equipment. We’d been dinged for not making sure we didn’t already have something before we procured something new, and our property management folks were excited to be able to address this, at no additional cost to them. It’s also helped address the “what’s in it for me” for folks that aren’t interested in social networking – everyone likes to be able to get free stuff. It saves the government money to reuse equipment, and supports our green goals.

7. What are the lessons learned for other agencies who may want to replicate your great work?

a. You can’t have friends at work. Really. The term needs to be “connections” or “contacts” in the enterprise, and not imply any special relationship.
b. Ensure an even playing field – give everyone access to everyone else’s profile. Make sure groups are equal opportunity (so no to groups for VA Tech alumni, yes for carpooling groups)
c. Engage stakeholders early and see it as an organizational change effort, not an IT one.
d. Iterate, iterate, iterate – don’t be afraid to make mistakes, or learn from them. (and set expectations with your participants!)
e. Tie it to your business. This may seem like a no-brainer for some, but it’s got to serve a business need, or no one will use it.
f. Make it win-win. If it’s all for the users, and nothing for management/business, it’s a toy that’s not worth the investment. Conversely, if there’s nothing in it for users because it’s there to serve management, no one will use it.

I’d also encourage everyone to read Dion Hinchcliffe’s great article – 14 reasons why Enterprise 2.0 projects fail.

8. What are the next steps? What’s your vision for two years from now?

Spacebook right now is at an early level of maturity, very 1.0. Our plan is to add more features, integrate it more closely with our Agency intranet, and make it more robust. In two years, my vision is to see a thriving community that shares information regardless of physical location, so you’re not just collaborating with the scientist on your team or down the hall, but across the country.

9. Anything else you think is important to share? Did I miss anything that other agencies should know?

Don’t give up. And don’t just implement something for the sake of doing something. Work with your community to find the right fit.


If you want to hear Emma directly, check out her presentation below from the Gov 2.0 Expo:

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Awesomeness…Great project. To me, one of the best points of this example is all the old-fashioned legwork Emma did internally. She marketed the project internally, found early champions, touched place with all stakeholders, and just old-fashioned demo’d and promoted it. Strong work and looking forward to seeing more awesomeness out of Spacebook

Alex Pline

I can second the legwork that Emma has done. Do not underestimate the need for advocacy – in a bottoms us “good way”, not just with senior management. In addition to the vision and management to get this going, that is Emma’s forte!

Kitty Wooley

Andy and Emma, I thougth this was an interesting dialogue. Particularly appreciated #7 Lessons learned for other agencies, and thanks for alerting me to Dion Hinchcliffe’s blog on ZDNet.