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)” 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.”