Building and Sustaining a Learning Organization

By Anne Luttrell

The Journey to Project Management Excellence Continues

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged human imagination with “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things…not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” At the time, NASA was in its infancy. But with the U.S. in a space race with the then Soviet Union, getting to the moon quickly became a national priority. As a result, NASA had an easier time getting budgets approved. Projects and programs were straightforward. Systems were simpler with fewer interfaces. The list of suppliers was shorter and easier to manage. And as for talent development, NASA sought the best and the brightest in science and engineering and threw them into a project or program.

"Over the years, NASA has grown into a complex organization with projects and programs that test the boundaries of what is thought feasible both in technology and in human development."

Over the years, NASA has grown into a complex organization with projects and programs that test the boundaries of what is thought feasible both in technology and in human development. Its story is one of remarkable achievements and shattering failures. In just 55 years, NASA’s engineers and scientists have progressed from successfully launching a lunar flyby to putting men on the moon, developing the space shuttle program, the International Space Station and the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, to name just a handful. Its focus may still be space exploration, but it has evolved into an organization that successfully partners across both geographic and political boundaries. However, to understand NASA’s development into a mature and complex organization, it is first necessary to understand its beginning, the events that would shape its evolution, and how it continues to evolve.

For decades, NASA lacked an enterprise-wide approach to knowledge management and communication with no structure for capturing institutional knowledge and experience in a meaningful and systemic way. Failures were inevitable. Though NASA is known for its robust talent development program today, in its early days, the lack of such a program wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a potential problem, one that could be a contributing factor to project or program failure.

Since, at its core, the NASA story is a people story, every lesson learned from every failure— every criticism— revolves around its people. Did they fail to communicate and share knowledge? Were the right people on the right projects? Was the right knowledge correctly identified, and the people who have it? The struggle to answer these questions powered a series of changes that put NASA on a trajectory to become a learning organization.

This paper provides an overview of three events that triggered three profound changes at NASA. These events led to a shift in thinking from a focus on individual competency to developing teams and, finally, to becoming a learning organization. Ultimately, these changes drove the evolution of the Office of the Chief Engineer from a single expert advisor to an enterprise-wide PMO.

Today, NASA’s Office of the Chief Engineer delivers a mature methodology for capturing and disseminating knowledge, for sharing expertise and lessons learned, for ensuring effective communication, for developing its people and assigning the right people to the right projects and programs. How it matured is a story about failure and learning from failure. Much of it was painful. All of it was a journey to project management excellence.

Challenger: Developing the Individual

The space shuttle program was far more complex than any prior program, including the Apollo program. Apollo’s systems were simpler with fewer vendors and far fewer interfaces than the shuttle program. The supply chain was less complicated and NASA had more money.

Project management for the space shuttle program, however, included many more systems and thousands of interfaces for each shuttle, and the program was operating in a far more complex political landscape. For example, while the space shuttle was designed in the U.S., the supply chain was very different. Not all of the vendors were North American. The vocabulary may have been the same, but they weren’t using the same processes and procedures. They had to learn to work together. As a result, costing was different and oversight was increased. The Challenger struggle would also be one between industry and civil service. There were pressures on industry to give NASA the message it wanted to hear. All of this would contribute to the tragic events of January 28, 1986.


When the Challenger shuttle launched on that cold January morning, its flight had been delayed four times in five days due to high winds, a minor mechanical failure the morning of the scheduled launch, and concerns about the effect of sub-freezing temperatures on shuttle hardware.

On the afternoon of January 27, engineers and management at the Thiokol division of Morton Thiokol, suppliers of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, held a meeting focused on the integrity of the O-rings. These rings serve as seals in the joints between the solid rocket boosters. Concerns centered on the effect the cold temperature would have on the resiliency of the rubber-like O-rings, and their ability to create a seal. Company engineers agreed that mission failure was a real possibility if Challenger launched at the predicted temperatures. An early evening teleconference was then set for Thiokol and NASA representatives from Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center.

After the 45-minute call, there was disagreement among NASA officials around Thiokol’s recommendations. Some thought that Thiokol advocated delaying Challenger’s launch yet again. Others heard their concerns but believed that the company had not made a formal recommendation to delay. As a result of this misunderstanding, a second conference call occurred later that evening. Thiokol engineers advised against launching Challenger if temperatures fell below 53° F, the lowest temperature at a previous shuttle launch. NASA managers expressed surprise. In a third call, a Thiokol executive reported the company had reassessed the information and found it inconclusive. Finally, a decision was made to go ahead with the launch. Challenger failed 73-seconds after takeoff.

What NASA learned from Challenger

At its heart, the Challenger failure represents what happens when critical decisions are made with insufficient or incorrect information. Those who made the decision to launch were unaware of the recent history of problems around the O-rings and the joint. They were also unaware of the contractor’s initial recommendation against launching at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, they lacked a clear understanding of the concerns expressed by Rockwell International’s engineers about ice on the launch pad and how that might affect the shuttle. The Presidential Commission’s report on the Challenger accident revealed a failure to communicate effectively across project teams compounded at multiple levels, starting with the project leader.

"After Challenger, the focus was on building individual competence."

Failure Leads to Change

In the wake of the Challenger accident, a former director of the Apollo program, retired Air Force General Samuel C. Phillips led a NASA Management Study Group. The group’s report cited a need to “strengthen agency-wide leadership in developing and managing people.” The result would be the establishment in 1989 of the Program and Project Initiative. As part of that initiative, a series of training courses in the fundamentals of project management knowledge was established. The focus was on building individual competence. This training used traditional approaches such as classroom learning and on-the-job training.

This initiative was also the direct precursor to the NASA Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership (APPEL), established in 1998 as an agency-wide resource for technical workforce development.

A decade after Challenger, it would become clear that a focus on individual competence was just a starting point. Back-to-back Mars mission failures would highlight the flaws in an individual development focus. This focus didn’t connect the individual with the larger project team or the organization’s strategy. NASA knew it had talented people, but they were trained and prepared to work only as individuals. As a result, they were less successful working in teams, as the failure of the Mars missions would make clear.

Mars Missions: Developing the Team

The Mars missions — Mars Climate Orbiter, Polar Lander and Deep Space2—were the second installment in a long-term program of robotic exploration of that planet. The purpose was two-fold: seek clues to the history of climate change and the planet’s water resources and test 10 new technologies. The latter would be accomplished by a pair of basketball-sized microprobes, part of Deep Space 2 and NASA’s New Millennium Program, which focused on technology development rather than science.


All three missions failed

The investigation report would cite an engineering error as primary cause behind the Mars Climate Orbiter’s failure. That failure, however, was the result of poor communication between teams. The error was a metric mishap that NASA would carefully avoid in all future missions. The flight system software on the Mars Climate Orbiter took thrust instructions using the metric unit newtons, while the software on the ground that generated those instructions used the Imperial measure, pound-force .

After reaching the planet’s surface, the Mars Polar Lander failed to communicate with Earth. Following repeated efforts to establish contact, it was determined that the most likely cause of the lander’s crash was the premature shutdown of its descent engines. This caused the lander to impact the surface at high velocity.

A review of the Deep Space 2 project revealed that the engineers abandoned a complete system impact test midway through the project based on schedule considerations and a belief that a non-destructive test would be as effective and a lot less expensive.

Aside from engineering and manufacturing mistakes that came to light, reports issued by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab concluded that poor communication between the propulsion and thermal groups resulted in major errors in the propulsion thermal design going undetected until after the launch.

"After Mars, NASA formed a knowledge management team."

Failure leads to change

After these failures, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin made it clear that APPEL would need to develop team capabilities as well as individual competency. This wake-up call helped set the Academy on its present course of offering direct support to project teams in the field.

The Mars failures brought into focus NASA's failure to engage learning so expertise was shared across project teams.

Supporting Goldin’s conclusion, a 2002 report issued by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) cited “fundamental weaknesses in the collection and sharing of lessons learned agency-wide.” The report noted that as a result of the Mars failures, NASA took action to improve its policies and practices for capturing knowledge so expertise would be shared across project and program teams.

It developed a business strategy called “knowledge management” to increase productivity, collaboration and innovation. To coordinate and guide its efforts, NASA formed a knowledge management team. This team developed a strategic plan that laid out broad goals and objectives for knowledge management, including several pilots to enhance knowledge sharing.

Columbia: Becoming a learning organization

An investigation board determined that the 2003 Columbia accident resulted when a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank as it was making its landing approach. The foam fatally breached the spacecraft wing. This breach allowed atmospheric gases to bleed into the shuttle during reentry, leading to Columbia’s loss. As a result of that accident, NASA suspended space shuttle flights for more than two years as it investigated the disaster.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) issued a multi-volume report citing, among other things, the lack of effective communication of critical safety information. The CAIB also concluded that “NASA’s current organization…has not demonstrated the characteristics of a learning organization.” After Columbia, NASA realized that to be a learning organization, knowledge capture and sharing had to become embedded in its organizational DNA—everyone had to understand they had a responsibility to share what they learned and experienced with the entire organization.

"After Columbia, NASA realized it had to become a learning organization."

Failure leads to change

As a result of the Columbia failure, the Academy stepped up its support to project and program teams and “looked for new ways to address communications, organizational learning, and technical excellence.”

The question became how to capture learning and experience when every NASA project and program involves both NASA SWAT teams and industry partners. The industry partner executes the project. The NASA SWAT team is responsible for bringing the lessons learned and knowledge back to NASA, but it is also responsible for sharing lessons learned from previous projects and programs with the industry partner. The duality of this process provides a bulwark against costly and tragic failures.


Building Organizational Capability through Knowledge Share and Talent Development

NASA's approach to knowledge management makes accessible individual as well as accumulated knowledge. This accessibility is integral to the agency’s approach to talent development. Project and program managers need access to reports, experiences and lessons learned however far back that information might go. If something starts to go wrong on a project or program at a critical juncture, they need to know where to find the information needed or where to find who has the critical skill, or wisdom, to offer a solution.

To capture and share lessons learned and integrate them into a talent development program, the agency developed a culture of knowledge sharing. This sometimes occurs in a classroom, while at other times, learning might occur in a forum, or through reading case studies, white papers and articles or by watching videos.

To manage its immense trove of project and program knowledge, NASA created a basic structure—the Office of the Chief Engineer (OCE)—NASA's PMO. In 1976, when NASA established the office, the OCE was one individual whose role was to offer advice, expertise and insight on engineering as an acknowledged expert to NASA’s administration. It was not about knowledge capture or talent management.

As a result of the Challenger, Mars and Columbia failures, however, NASA did a series of course corrections. In 2002, the OCE began focusing on training, knowledge capture, lessons learned and knowledge sharing. A key question driving this change was Are we building our talent? In answer to that question, the OCE began its evolution to an enterprise PMO and, in 2004, the Academy of Project/Program and Engineering Leadership (APPEL) moved from the Office of Human Capital Management (HR) to the Office of the Chief Engineer. This move would advance the development of an agency-wide solution for talent development. In 2005, APPEL assumed responsibility for engineering to help NASA meet a critical need—build systems engineering capability.

Although this seems counterintuitive, at NASA, HR wasn’t within the mission in terms of program and project teams. Moving talent development to the OCE created a structure for the development of a strategy for individual and team training that would support project and program success on an enterprise level. NASA recognized that the capability to capture knowledge and lessons learned in the engineering, project and program chain would eliminate the disconnect among these groups.

To succeed, NASA’s projects and programs require thousands of things to go right. To fail, only one thing needs to go wrong. As NASA learned from its failures, it made significant organizational changes that today govern how lessons are captured; how knowledge is shared enterprise wide; how talent is developed. The OCE is now responsible for policy, standards, workforce development, advanced concepts, strategy and mission architecture, integration across program and mission boundaries and program assessment. APPEL as a component of the OCE leads the agency’s definition and development of competencies and training activities.

Evolution of NASA's Chief Knowledge Office

Since a lot of what NASA does is what it has done before, it became clear that to capture experiences and incorporate them into lessons learned NASA would have to develop an agency-wide methodology for effectively communicating what worked and what didn’t. A fundamental component of that methodology would be to leverage storytelling and reflection.

At NASA, stories engender organization sustainability — the development of employee skills through the dissemination of knowledge and experience gained from projects and programs. They are how NASA learns.

They recount the real-life experiences of practitioners and communicate important practical wisdom and best practices that readers and listeners can apply to their own projects and programs, encouraging them to stop, think, talk, and reflect on their experiences and those of others. The agency has integrated storytelling sessions into its talent development program to create reflective project and program managers who share their insights as a strategy for sharing knowledge and experience across the enterprise.

In the beginning, a lot of project and program leaders thought storytelling was about them sharing what they had learned. What they discovered through telling their stories was that they were learning more about their own style, what worked and what didn’t.

Human thinking is geared to our biases. In a complex organization where there are many different views from many different cultures with different perceptions, storytelling is a strategy for shaping leaders who can communicate effectively and are open to different points of view. Considering that 80% of NASA's missions are international, they become essential for sharing experience, knowledge and lessons learned.

In 2011, the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) became uncomfortable with the fragmented nature of knowledge across the overall agency and advised NASA to appoint an agency-level Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO).

This proposal was approved and Dr. Ed Hoffman was appointed in 2012, with each Center, Mission Directorate, and Agency Support Office following soon thereafter.

Reporting to the OCE, NASA's Chief Knowledge Officer takes responsibility for knowledge policy and the integration of knowledge services across the agency’s programs and projects agency wide. Positioning the role of the Chief Knowledge Officer at such a high level communicates to the enterprise and its industry partners that preserving and applying tacit and explicit knowledge was being taken seriously by the agency.

Since that time, there have been significant improvements in the agency’s knowledge infrastructure, including an update to the knowledge governance document, the NASA Knowledge Policy Document (NPD) 7120.6, an inventory of agency knowledge services and products, and the creation of an interactive guide to display and access this agency knowledge inventory.

The agency CKO developed a set of knowledge services strategic imperatives that target NASA objectives for knowledge and emphasizes the development and implementation of future knowledge initiatives, measures, and metrics (Figure 1):

  • In terms of people, sustain and expand the use of the agency’s intellectual capital across NASA’s enterprises and generations through better networks, alliances, and communities of practice.
  • In terms of people, increase collaboration across organizational barriers through promotion of a culture of openness.
  • In terms of systems, support the technical workforce in executing NASA's missions efficiently and effectively through lessons learned, mishap reports, and promulgation of best practices.
  • In terms of systems, create a marketplace for knowledge that identifies the value of information and aligns practitioner and organizational imperatives through accessible information and user-friendly services.

In applying the benefits of 30 years at the agency, Dr. Hoffman recognized that any knowledge management approach for NASA needed to be adaptable and flexible enough to accommodate the varied requirements and cultural characteristics of each Center and Mission Directorate. A federated model was certainly the best fit for the agency, defining the NASA CKO and Deputy CKO functions as facilitators and champions for agency knowledge services.

The NPD 7120 NASA Knowledge Policy for Programs and Projects was rewritten to adjust to the fact that NASA had greatly expanded its knowledge activities over the past several years to include a wider array of services than simply archiving lessons-learned. The document’s federated approach resulted in an iteratively reviewed inventory and definition of agency knowledge services captured on a NASA Knowledge Map.

The Evolution in Perspective

Through failure, and the willingness to accept hard truths and learn from them, NASA evolved into the mature organization it is today. Challenger, the Mars Missions and Columbia brought NASA to the realization that a rigorous and sustained commitment to excellence ensures excellence.

After Challenger, assumptions focused completely on individual development. These assumptions would prove inadequate.

After the Mars failures, NASA realized that projects and programs happen in teams. They had talented people, but they were trained and prepared to work as individuals. As a result, they were unable to work effectively in teams.

After Columbia, NASA realized it had to take a knowledge management approach to ensure success with projects and teams.

These events, and what NASA learned from them, helped shape the OCE’s evolution into an enterprise-wide PMO. It’s a story about the integration of policies and guidance, talent development, learning, projects, programs and consulting support to drive program excellence and advanced issues in technology.

"At NASA, stories engender organization sustainability. They are how NASA learns."

The Evolution continues

The latest chapter in NASA's evolution as a learning organization emphasizes the enterprise-wide influence of a PMO. Taking a federated approach, the PMO is the focus of recurring lessons that will guide the organization into the future. Experience has taught the agency that while these lessons can be simple to articulate, they can be difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain. Yet experience has also taught NASA that lessons learned can provide clear markers for the future.

A defining characteristic of a mature organization is its ability to adapt and change. In January 2013, NASA realized that their system for capturing and sharing knowledge was outdated and began to forge a new policy that emphasizes a more integrated approach to lessons learned and knowledge management. This integrated approach is knowledge services.

Knowledge Services at NASA

The benefits of knowledge services are often highlighted most vividly when the mission is threatened from various sources, such as political, social, technical, and financial—as seen most clearly through the Challenger and Columbia accidents. However, in a project and program organization like NASA, there are many less severe but also important opportunities for knowledge services to contribute to positive outcomes through project reviews and organizational audits. These activities can highlight deficiencies that can then be addressed through knowledge services.

One essential lesson that NASA has learned is that the practitioner often knows best. Work is accomplished through engineering, scientific and management professionals, and knowledge services that organize around the work and the practitioners have proven most valuable.

A potential danger, identified through hard experience, is to consider knowledge work the exclusive domain of knowledge professionals. Inclusivity for all contributors within the organization—as well as practitioners in other government agencies, industry, academia and international partners—has proven a much more successful knowledge strategy.

At NASA knowledge services is an active exchange of wisdom and lessons learned through access to both people and technology. While there can often be a contest between technology or people approaches, NASA believes an optimal balance of both is necessary to mission success.

Why stories are so powerful

Before we had the written word, we had stories. They were how tribal wisdom and history got passed down. A story well told not only communicated, it taught, it inspired and it motivated. That was true when mankind lived in caves and foraged in forests. It is true now as we continue to test the limits of our capabilities and the boundaries of our dreams.

One of the advantages of knowledge services at NASA is that storytelling is an ingrained part of its culture. Every project is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has threats, problems, solutions and heroes. At NASA telling that story well is a powerful tool for change and indispensable to being and sustaining a learning organization.

1998 Mars Missions

The Mars Climate Orbiter would monitor the atmosphere, surface and polar caps for a complete Martian year of 687 days. A major objective was to study the existence of water distribution on Mars. The orbiter’s instruments would analyze surface composition, characterize daily and seasonal weather patterns and frost deposits. In addition, it would monitor surface and atmospheric interactions to better understand Mars as a global system.

The Mars Polar Lander would conduct experiments on soil samples acquired by its robotic arm. If all went well, the lander’s primary mission would be extended beyond the initial three months.

Deep Space 2’s purpose was to flight-test and validate 10 new high-risk, high-reward technologies that would enable future scientific missions. The goal was to demonstrate innovative approaches to entering a planet’s atmosphere, surviving a crash-impact and penetrating below the planet’s surface. A secondary goal was to search for water ice under the planet’s surface.

NASA's six Knowledge Service categories identified and defined

The following six knowledge service categories were identified and defined for the Knowledge Map:

  1. Case Studies and Publications consist of analyses and their companion readings that reveal knowledge from people and missions, and the factors contributing to mission success, such as the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Case Study program and the NASA CKO publication ASK Magazine.
  2. Face-to-Face Knowledge Services consist of activities involving the physical presence of participants in the same geographical location and the capture and dissemination of knowledge that contributes to mission success, such as the APPEL Masters Forum and the NASA Engineering Safety Center (NESC) Engineering Workshops.
  3. Online Tools consist of a diverse set of Web-enabled, activity-specific, synchronous and asynchronous capabilities that result in knowledge that can be applied towards mission success. Examples of this are the Johnson Spaceflight Center (JSC) Shuttle Knowledge Console and the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) deployment of the GroupSystems Think Tank decision support tool on the NASA Interactive Collaborative Environment (ICE).
  4. Knowledge Networks consist of communities that share common knowledge capabilities and requirements, and through interaction produce valuable knowledge for mission success. Examples include identified communities of practice in the Office of the Chief Engineer (OCE) NASA Engineering Network (NEN) and the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Interactive Collaborative Environment (ICE).
  5. Lessons Learned and Knowledge Processes consist of databases and associated activities specifically geared toward capture, storage, and retrieval of knowledge for mission success. Examples include the Office of the Chief Engineer (OCE) Lessons Learned Information System (LLIS) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Stories archive.
  6. Search / Tag / Taxonomy Tools consist of information and telecommunications technology and application development that result in improved capabilities for navigation, organization, and search enhancement of knowledge to apply towards mission success. Examples of this are the JSC Semantic System and the NASA APPEL Knowledge Categorization project.