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KMaus09: Day two NASA keynote

August 5, 2009

It’s day two of KM Australia and I am set up to conference blog (the tweet stream is at #kmaus09) and in curmudgeon mode. We have a network now which is good, but now power cords! Chairman’s introduction is still running, but we move over to the first keynote Manson Yew who is project manager for the NASA Engineering Network (not Jeanne Holm), but Manson works for her and teaches with her. The 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing provides context. NASA has ten centres across the USA, lots of contractors and an ageing workforce (50% of experienced engineers in the near future) and replacement is simply not possible given the supply. Turns out that they are good at attracting engineers but retention is dire (zero after three years at the Jet Propulsion Labs).

Interesting statement about the unwillingness of the current recruits to work in non-conducive environments for a cause. There is a sort of implication here that NASA should change to accommodate this. I’m less sure to be honest, I think we need to find ways to get people to commit to the wider idea of service but that may not be pragmatic. From other conversations I have had in that community on the west coast, the organisations prevent that concept of service to manifest itself by excessive control, so they can’t call on it retention and motivation.

Now talking about the NASA portal. Complaining about the lack of co-ordination between multiple different sites, not saying the same things, insecure etc. etc. Arguing legitimately that the public needed a single platform where things can be published once, but I am less sure about the idea of uniform portal for all internal staff other than as a hygiene factor. No reference back (I find this ironic) to his earlier comment about the need of the new generation to work differently; sense of connections not being made?

Lots of old language here, they want to create a learning organisation, they have built a portal, they have created a taxonomy, they bought a software package (next speaker there). They have a lessons learnt site, but the lessons are vetted and validated by a centralised function. No mention yet about the attention awareness issues of the second shuttle disaster which is interesting. Given that all the necessary information was available, you would think there would be some reflection here on changes made to their KM policy after that report came out. Nothing so far.

Now saying that search engines on their own will not work, but instead they use key words pulled out on all information objects. Again this isn’t exceptional, even with a controlled vocabulary. It still makes the basic error of hierarchical taxonomies, namely trying to guess in advance how things are to be categorised (itself a problematic term). Progressing from there to a conventional community of practice, also controlled. Advise of young engineers (which sounds more narrative based) is well received. Place for formally validated lessons learnt to be incorporated into process. Again, this is mostly hygiene stuff, simply an electronic version of the old company handbook and engineering manuals. Lots of good intentions here, and Manson is likeable, he carries an enthusiasm for his work which is encouraging. It just could be so much more.

They didn’t build a CV based expertise management system, hoping now, but no they linked existing competence databases etc., tracking published papers, supervisor five year plans. Nothing about managing informal learning, knowledge transfer or non-competence aspects of expertise. Nothing here about mavericks, dissent, trouble makers. You get the sense there is no place for them, although I know from time I have spent at JPL that informal networks are extensive and a rich well of knowledge that could be tapped.

Now talking about paradigm shifts and saying that they want to achieve them; a slide comes up Creating the basis for Transformation. They know social computing is going on, they have a mandate to share their knowledge with the public, so using social computing to share knowledge with the public. They are also starting to experiment with internal use of social networking (seeing who knows who for when you can’t get the person you need). Second Life in early stages, bogging capability and a U-Tube channel. Looks like social computing is being used experimentally to reach out to the public which is good, less clear what is happening internally.

Questions about the shuttle disaster and learning from that. The response is that NASA is structurally designed to be competitive between silos and there are politics in management. I asked about the two Shuttle disasters, the first report said that there was a failure of information flow, the second that the information was available, but no one paid attention to it. Response is interesting, no mention of weak signal detection (worrying), we are told that the approach has been to create a clear technical line of authorty that also reports to the chief engineer, so each engineer has a line other than through their boss to report concern. Ok, its better than none, but I would have hoped for more on issues such as anonymity, clustering of reports and a whole host of other techniques which are now available.

Finishes with a Seneca quote (to match mine of yesterday) If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him. I buy that, in the sense of the Kennedy goal to get a man on the moon (and it was a man…) so high level direction OK, its the specificity of targets which is dangerous.

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