An overview of training and development strategies for NASA project management


Special Topics - Aerospace Industry

Francis T. Hoban and Edward J. Hoffman
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C.


NASA's reputation for successfully managing large, complex space and aeronautical systems has been enhanced by the many achievements of the past three decades. The Apollo program, for example, is still considered a major human accomplishment and one of the ten greatest engineering feats of all time. Our probes and explorations of the planets have reaped spectacular discoveries and information. The success of these complex endeavors demonstrates that NASA can devise and operate management systems in step with contemporary technological complexities. But even before the popularity of Total Quality Management (TQM), continuous improvement of these systems was an important part of the NASA culture.

During the mid-1970s, NASA faced the compelling challenge of reducing the costs of working in space. The National Space (Shuttle) Transportation System was developed at a time when shifting national priorities meant budget decreases in the nation's space program. To provide low-cost payload alternatives during this cost-conscious period, NASA needed better information on the specific factors that influenced past project costs.

…participants identified the need to capture and retain the lessons learned from past projects, … NASA lacked a project management corporate memory.

In 1975, in conjunction with the National Academy of Engineering, two project management workshops were organized and conducted toad-dress this cost concern. During the workshops, the factors influencing project cost were identified and debated, but a variety of other project management issues emerged in discussions. In particular, participants identified the need to capture and retain the lessons learned from past projects, noting that NASA lacked a project management corporate memory. Ultimately, twelve recommendations relating to reducing project cost were made to the Deputy Administrator. At the top of this list was the need to establish a training program for NASA's future project managers. This recommendation was implemented, and in the summer of 1976, the Project Management Shared Experience Program (PMSEP) was offered to NASA employees. The PMSEP was the first agency-wide project management training program. Prior to its implementation, NASA relied heavily on the knowledge and skills of its original team.

Knowledge, Skills, and Experiences Required by Different Levels of Project Team Managers

Figure 1. Knowledge, Skills, and Experiences Required by Different Levels of Project Team Managers


An agency-wide working group was established to implement the recommended training activity. The working group first reviewed the project management training opportunities available in other government agencies and the aerospace industry. This review included a visit to the Defense Systems Management College at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The NASA project management community and three academic institutions then became involved in the development of the preliminary designs. After much debate, the working group agreed to the following fundamental design assumptions:

  • The training programs would be limited to one week.
  • Managers are most productive when they understand both the managerial responsibilities of the project team and other pressures operating on the total system.
  • } Rather than a course in technical skills, the programs would relate technical skills to the art of project management.
  • The programs would emphasize the NASA approach to project management:
    • Strong in-house technical capability,
    • Common institutional environment for the management of projects,
    • In-depth monitoring of contractor efforts, and
    • Emphasis on technical success with a growing concern for balancing costs and schedules.
  • The training methods would include situational exercises, case studies, small group discussions, panel presentations and lectures.

The PMSEP was presented twice a year from 1976 until 1980, when it was no longer offered due to insufficient resources. In 1984, the program was renewed for three more years. Judged by participant evaluations and word-ofmouth, the PMSEP was very successful, but with only 50 participants per year and a limited course offering, the program could not fulfill the explosive training demands of the late 1980s. The program did, however, provide NASA with valuable experience in developing customized training opportunities.


After the Challenger accident, the NASA Administrator asked Sam Phillips, a retired Air Force general with vast aerospace and NASA experience, to conduct an assessment of NASA management. The final report of this study group recommended that NASA again “institute formal training and development programs for program/project managers.”

This time the implementation action was given to the Office of Human Resources and Organization Development, and again the first duties were to conduct a feasibility study, to identify other training initiatives throughout government and industry, and to prepare a preliminary implementation plan.

The conclusions of the feasibility study were:

  • NASA project management is growing more complex.
  • The pool of qualified/experienced project people is likely to decrease, because of retirement and other opportunities, just as demand is increasing.
  • NASA must manage its contractor with a higher degree of program competence.
  • The potential training population includes NASA employees involved in managing flight programs/projects (manned, unmanned, space, aeronautics), research projects, construction of facilities and information systems.
  • The potential customer-base includes those new to program/project management, the subsystem- and systemlevel employees and project managers and their immediate staff. These groups include both technical and administrative personnel.

The total target population was estimated to be roughly 7,000 employees.

With this information in hand, the next steps were to:

  • Identify training requirements,
  • Complete the survey of training programs available from all other sources,
  • Identify the gaps,
  • Complete a content design, and
  • Establish an implementation structure and plan.

The preliminary effort to identify the training requirements was greatly enhanced by data developed at a NASA Program and Project Management Colloquium held at Wallops Flight Facility in 1980. The colloquium considered three levels of project team management: the project manager, the systems manager and the subsystems manager (Figure 1). The colloquium participants identified the knowledge, skills and experience needed to be fully qualified at each level, which in turn led to the development of specific requirements for each management level (Figure 2).

System Manager

Figure 2. System Manager

In addition to this data, a simple questionnaire was developed for attendees of the PMSEP and participants of two NASA executive management programs. The questionnaire sought information about career ladders, length of training programs, problems in implementation, and content. More than 125 responses were collected, and this data, along with the work conducted at the Program/Project Management Colloquium, proved invaluable to the program developers. It offered specific objectives which needed to be accomplished in order to meet NASA project management training requirements.


Specifically, this data established a need for a project management curriculum, identified what the instruction should accomplish and indicated which objectives should be taught. In order to determine how the objectives could best be met and who could provide instruction, the Program/Project Management Steering Group (PPMSG), formed in 1984, was utilized extensively.

The PPMSG was and still is composed of experienced project managers from each of the NASA centers and headquarters. Senior enough to have acquired a vast range of project management experience, they also had the credibility to identify critical requirements for a training curriculum. The PPMSG charter includes:

Aerospace Industry Project Manager Development Model

Figure 3. Aerospace Industry Project Manager Development Model

  • Specifying the different needs and appropriate scheduling of development activities for managers associated with NASA projects and programs.
  • Providing assistance in resolving common concerns associated with NASA program/project management.
  • Assisting in the development and issuance of NASA Management Instructions (NMIs) and other agency-wide guidance.
  • Providing a continuing focus for enhancing the professional knowledge and quality of NASA program/project management.

Since the membership of this group included senior NASA executives with vast amounts of project management experience, they were able to come to consensus on numerous issues in the design and development of the program. The involvement of senior managers from each NASA organization proved to be critical for ongoing support of what became known later as the Program/Project Management Initiative. Not only were the customers designing what would be offered, but the PPMSG also demanded that agreements were made on an agency basis, instead of individual organizations. Through their identification of specific requirements, plus how they could be taught with an agency perspective, the PPMSG was instrumental in implementing the NASA program/project management training.


With training requirements firmly established, the next step was to survey existing project management training programs. The survey targeted short courses (5-day) and intermediate courses (2-10 weeks), as well as university programs, industry programs, programs of professional societies and institutions, and programs within NASA centers. Although no program specifically met NASA's requirements, a number of the industry development models contained similar requirements. A composite industry model was developed for use by NASA (Figure 3).

NASA Model for Development and Training of Project Management Personnel

Figure 4. NASA Model for Development and Training of Project Management Personnel

A progress report was presented to NASA's top management and the PPMSG in October 1987. Both groups agreed with the work that had been accomplished and suggested the preparation of a NASA Project Management Development Model and a two-week curriculum for system-level employees. At the beginning of 1988, the NASA model, unchanged to this date, was accepted for implementation (Figure 4).

During these reviews, it was decided that this effort should be known as the Program/Project Management Initiative (PPMI), with the goal of improving the overall performance of NASA's program/project management team.


During the five years that the PPMI has existed, numerous products and services have been offered to NASA's project management work force. Five primary areas have evolved: training and development; a corporate knowledge center; research studies; consulting services; and policy, processes and systems. Each product area emphasizes different but related activities aimed at improving project management (Figure 5).

Currently nine training programs have been developed for the NASA project management community. All of the programs have been developed through agency-wide efforts to define training needs, followed by thorough job analyses to identify training requirements. For most programs, a study was conducted to identify the critical requirements and issues that needed to be addressed.

PPMI Product Areas

Figure 5. PPMI Product Areas

Two core programs, Project Management (PM) and Advanced Project Management (APM), offer training at the subsystem level (PM) and system level (APM). These two-week courses rely on instructor lectures, panel discussions, case studies, exercises and senior management presentations. A key component of each course is the involvement of NASA practitioners in teaching the lessons learned from NASA's many programs and projects.

The seven remaining programs have been incorporated into the PPMI training curriculum as a result of ongoing needs assessments of the project management community and the various steering groups. Three Systems Engineering (SE) courses cover the different consecutive phases of project management at NASA. The SE courses were developed in conjunction with the requirements identified by a Systems Engineering Working Group. A critical contribution of this working group has been the development of a NASA-generic Systems Engineering project cycle, as well as a proposed handbook which covers various aspects of this discipline.

Another major contribution has come from the Program Control Working Group Composed of senior NASA Program Control experts, this group has worked to develop and implement a training regimen aimed at providing the project work force with increased skills on cost and schedule factors. Training in program control was initially delivered using an overview course developed by the Program Control Working Group. Two aspects of the Program Control course are particularly interesting. First, the overview is composed of 13 distinct modules that can be taught jointly or separately, based upon the needs of the group. Second, all materials have been designed to allow NASA's program control experts to teach the course. Additional courses are now being developed in the program control area.

The procurement community has a critical role to play in project success, and experts in this field have played an active role in the Initiative. The Source Evaluation Board (SEB) course was developed with vital contributions from NASA's procurement organization. The SEB course offers participants thorough training in evaluating NASA procurements and selecting a winning bid. An integral part of this program is a simulation that enables participants to respond to situations that they could encounter while serving as members of an actual Source Evaluation Board. Much of the success of this program is due to the fact that participants are able to use their SEB training soon after completing the course. Entire SEB teams have been trained together, while other participants expect to serve on a Source Evaluation Board within six months following training.

The Executive Project Management, Program Management, Construction of Facilities Management and Task Management courses are also aimed at specialized populations. These courses depend on experts from the NASA work force to identify the specific training requirements and deliver the actual programs. Inmost cases, the popularity of each course has led to a demand for new offerings, as well as follow-on or renewal programs. Because of this demand and the increasing complexity of project management, new programs are already being designed.

Supplementing the course work in program/project management is a variety of educational media and resources designed to enrich and augment the training. A well-received PPMI Lexicon has been developed to provide the manager with technical terminology and abbreviations, including acronyms and symbols. A Tools Information Guide (TIG) has been devised to encourage the sharing of management techniques and technologies throughout NASA. Four NASA special publications have appeared since 1988, as Issues in NASA Program and Project Management. Distinguished managers in NASA, industry and academia contribute articles of lasting interest to program and project managers. The unprecedented response to the Issues has led to several reprintings, and a fifth volume is in production. A dozen videos of about 50 minutes each aim to capture on film for a wide audience those managers who are now or may yet become legends in the aerospace industry The NASA Alumni League has been extremely helpful in providing writers for Issues and “stars” for the videos. Finally a dedicated Program/Project library Collection is now located in NASA Headquarters Scientific and Technical Library. Hundreds of books, articles, videos and proceedings on program/project management are accessible at each Center library through the Aerospace Research Information Network (ARIN) and obtained through interlibrary loan. A complete bibliographical listing of Program/Project Library holdings is printed quarterly.


Over the past five years, the PPMI efforts in training research, conferences and correspondence have yielded several insights in training and development for NASA project management. The following strategies have proven to be the most effective:

  • Training is merely one aspect of the employee development process; on-the-job training is, and will continue to be, the most important training opportunity available to the workforce.
  • Promote the development of career paths.
  • Identify, understand, control and iterate customer requirements. Convert requirements into specifications.
  • Spend adequate time and effort up front during the study period. A thorough understanding of the job, before starting development, is essential.
  • Design the process so that ownership resides with the population being trained. Training is much too important to be left solely to professional trainers.
  • The diversity of NASA-represented by the NASA Centers with their individual cultures and the manned and unmanned space projects, as well as the aeronautical projects-dictates training for “a NASA way,” not “the NASA way.”
  • As selected members of the work force progress up the management ladder, the time available for training diminishes drastically. Keep this in mind when designing new programs.
  • The NASA work force demands NASA instructors for topics they feel NASA is best qualified to teach. Fortunately, the NASA work force contains many “content experts” who are eager to share their expertise.
  • Use the work force to assist in developing and operating the program by establishing steering committees and working groups. The result: a vast supply of reputable experts, with management participation at all levels that establishes ownership and ensures continuing involvement in the process.
  • Contractors play an important role in the design, development and delivery of NASA-sponsored training opportunities.
  • Plan for continuous improvement of program content and delivery.
  • Gradually replace the lecture method with participative learning experiences.
  • Explore the use of colleges and universities to assist in training of the work force.


The Program/Project Management Initiative has produced a variety of products and services for the NASA project management community over the past five years. It should not be assumed that the Initiative is entering a phase of equilibrium. On the contrary, due to the active interest of members and steering groups within NASA, many new activities and improvements are under way. For example, work is starting on development of a comprehensive career development framework for project managers. This would provide for career ladders, requirements and competencies, and new training needs. There is also an exploration of the use of project management computer simulation technologies to improve and expand training capabilities. The design, development and implementation of the Program/Project Management Initiative has given NASA an opportunity to understand and react to its program/project management development needs for the balance of the century.


Francis T. Hoban is currently a Senior Fellow at George Mason University. He is on loan from NASA, where he was the program manager of NASA's Program/Project Management Training and Development Institute.

Mr. Hoban's research and teaching interests are the management of complex programs and projects and the initiation and operations of research and development organizations.

He is responsible for putting into place the NASA Program/Project Management Training and Development Initiative.

Mr. Hoban received a M.B.A. from the College of William and May, a M.A. in personnel management from George Washington University, and a B.S. in aeronautical administration from Park College of Aeronautical Technology at St. Louis University.


Edward J. Hoffman is deputy program manager of the NASA Program/Project Management Initiative. He is responsible for training and development programs, consulting services for project management teams, lessons learned, knowledge capture, research and special studies on program and project management. In this capacity, he works with NASA, industry, academia and other government agencies in order to establish priorities and enhance capabilities in program and project management.

Dr. Hoffman received a B.S. in psychology from Brooklyn College. He received a M.S. and M.A. from Columbia University as well as his Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology.

AUGUST 1992 pm network



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