Project management learning at NASA

the intersection of projects and communities of practice

Tina M. Chindgren and Edward J. Hoffman
National Aeronautics and Aerospace Administration (NASA)
Headquarters, Washington, DC, United States

In today’s service-oriented, knowledge-intensive economy, global organizations must adapt to market forces to innovate and evolve. Sense and Antoni (2003) purported that a flexible organizational response to a competitive marketplace creates and fosters “temporal organizations” (p.487), also known as project teams. But in responding to market forces, organizations often fail to extract and disseminate the lessons their project teams have learned before their project leaders and members move to their next project (Cooper, Lyneis, & Bryant, 2002). As a result, one of the project manager’s greatest challenges is transferring their project knowledge to other projects. Understanding how to learn from past projects, and how to enable a project team to apply this learning to future projects, begins by recognizing the transfer challenge. In this paper, I examine the nexus of projects and communities of practice to understand the challenge in transferring lessons learned.

Problem Statement

Much of the work accomplished within modern organizations occurs within project teams (Kasvi, Vartiainen, & Hailikari, 2003; Schindler & Eppler, 2003). Because of this, it is necessary that organizations use the collective knowledge of project team members when implementing plans to realize organizational goals (Smith & Dodds, 1997). Garnering such knowledge is particularly important to project success because projects are increasingly complex, especially in terms of size, detail, and relationships (Lundin & Midler, 1998). Given the complexity, Turner and Muller (2003) explained that projects involve uncertainty because project members never know if their plans will deliver the required outcomes or achieve beneficial changes. Adding to this uncertainty is the fact that organizations must coordinate many projects to ensure integration and to mitigate risks involving competing priorities and geographically dispersed project teams. Organizations also often implement projects with a sense of urgency because they want to accomplish the project’s objectives within a specific, limited timeframe.

Kasvi, Vartiainen, and Hailikari (2003) reported that “every project has several potential outputs, not all of which are necessarily intentional” (p. 571). Two obvious outputs are a project or a service delivered for a customer and a team member’s project-specific knowledge. A less obvious output is project-specific knowledge that is technical and procedural in nature, focusing on how the project team used knowledge to produce a product or deliver a service and how the client/owner should use the product or service. Also present, but less prominent, is the organizational knowledge that results from communication and collaboration. With each new project experience, team members gain new knowledge. Their learning is inherently valuable because it is connected to something real and involves activities like problem solving, collaboration, and reflection.

For example, many organizations consider new product development as a knowledge-intensive activity that frequently requires interactions with project team members from various disciplines and viewpoints (Iansiti & MacCormack, 1997). This is because developing a new product involves applying existing knowledge to a new situation or creating new knowledge to respond to the new or existing situations. Such knowledge creation occurs while minimizing constraints such as limited budgets and tight project schedules as well as a shortage of skilled project team members. Fong (2003) reported that project team members must continuously incorporate new information into their present knowledgebase so as to solve technical challenges and satisfy project requirements, because “learning is inherent in the work they do” (p. 480).

It is project complexities and outputs that draw the project professional’s attention to a project’s intersections, to the interdependencies and commonalities comprising its dynamic environment. It is these intersections that provide organizations with the opportunities they need to share knowledge across the organization. Because projects are temporal and project members transfer from one project to another, organizations can use these opportunities to encourage project team members to share with their colleagues the lessons they have learned from working on previous projects.

Theoretical Framework

The Intersection of Projects and Communities of Practice

Koffman and Senge (1993) recognized that an essential component of innovative organizations with high organizational performance involved developing new knowledge and applying existing knowledge at the project team level. This is because a project team connects project team members with individuals working outside the team via social networks (Horvath, Callahan, Croswell, & Mukri, 1996). Individual project team members generally belong to—and identify with—other project teams or communities of practice both within and beyond their organization. This co-mingling suggests there are non-project-related opportunities for team members to acquire knowledge and encourage others to do the same.

To this end, knowledge management requires co-mingling among project team members, customers, stakeholders, and partners as well as vendors, contractors, and retirees. Knowledge management is an integrated, systematic approach to creating, capturing, codifying, applying, and sharing knowledge—for current and future needs—throughout an organization and its networks.

Frequently used activities for leveraging knowledge internally and externally at an organization include creating an intranet, building a knowledge repository, implementing groupware to support collaboration, mapping sources of internal expertise, and establishing new knowledge roles, such as the chief knowledge officer (Ruggles, 1998). A consistent theme in knowledge management entails capturing and sharing codified knowledge and reusable work products, often through information technology. Researchers, however, are increasingly recognizing that technology-driven initiatives often undervalue crucial knowledge held by employees and the groups and communities that help create new knowledge and help solve problems (Cross, Parker, Prusak, & Borgatti, 2001).

One social perspective on learning—also an approach to knowledge management—is the community of practice model. This model reflects the idea that one cannot separate knowledge from practice (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). As a result, a community of practice shares knowledge in living ways rather than in the typical static forms of documenting knowledge or storing information in a database. New information that is published in a manual is frequently highly contextual; organizations cannot fully collect it. The community of practice tradition, however, claims that learning occurs naturally when people participate in social communities, through constructing and practicing identities in relation to these communities (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991). This learning perspective assumes that learning deepens as participants simultaneously engage in project work and participate in a community of practice.

Community of Practice Model Defined

Lave and Wenger (1991) used the term community of practice in their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. In this work, the authors describe an informal, continuous, and naturally occurring learning process typical of traditional apprenticeships. In particular, it was Lave who observed that craft apprenticeships among Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia do not entail formally taught tailoring tasks. Instead, novice tailors begin by doing peripheral and simple activities, such as sewing buttons or hemming cuffs. Over time, the novice tailor takes on more responsibilities, and through shared activities within a community, the tailor develops master tailor skills.

Using observations of different apprenticeships (e.g., Ycatec midwives, US Navy quartermasters, meat-cutters), Lave and Wenger (1991) illustrated that the nature of the situation impacts the learning process. They placed learning squarely in the processes of coparticipation, not in the cognitive processes of any individual. Rather than focus on learning as the acquisition or discovery of knowledge, they situate learning in certain forms of social coparticipation and examine the types of social engagements that provide the proper context for learning. Lave and Wenger described a community of practice as “a set of relations among persons, activity, and the world, over time and in relation with other tangible and overlapping communities of practice” (p. 98). They also explained the importance of dynamic relationships by defining the term legitimate peripheral participation.

An interactive process in which the apprentice engages by simultaneously performing in several roles—status subordinate, learning practitioner, sole responsible agent in minor parts of the performance, aspiring expert, and so forth—each implying a different sort of responsibility, a different set of role relations, and a different interactive involvement. (p. 23)

This term concerns the process through which newcomers or junior-level associates move toward full participation in their community’s socio-cultural practices. In organizational communities, actual role responsibilities are unique to the culture and vary depending on individual learning and environmental conditions. As a result, legitimate peripheral participation is not a structure but “a way of acting” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 24). Furthermore, legitimate peripheral participation means that learning is not only a condition for community membership, it is also an evolving relationship over the long term. Eventually, a newcomer will become an old-timer.

Participation entails talking within and talking about a community. Talking within includes “exchanging information necessary to the progress of ongoing activities” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 109). Talking about entails stories and community lore. According to Lave and Wenger, “both forms of talk fulfill specific functions: engaging, focusing, and shifting attention, bringing about coordination etc., on the one hand; and supporting communical forms of memory and reflection, as well as signaling membership on the other” (p. 109). In the introduction to Lave and Wenger, Hanks (1991) explained the significance of these two activities:

The individual is not gaining a discrete body of abstract knowledge which (s)he will then transport and reapply in later contexts. Instead (s)he acquires the skill to perform by actually engaging in the process, under the attenuated conditions of legitimate peripheral participation. This central concept denotes the particular mode of engagement of a learner who participates in the actual practice of an expert, but only to a limited degree and with limited responsibility for the ultimate product as a whole. There is no necessary implication that a learner acquires mental representations that remain fixed thereafter, nor that the “lesson” taught consists itself in a set of abstract representations. (p. 14-15)

With this notion that learning occurs within an actionable context, Lave and Wenger (1991) challenged the popular notion of learning as a self-contained structure: They considered learning to be a “feature of practice which might be present in all sorts of activities, not just in clear cases of training and apprenticeship” (p.18). There are countless opportunities in everyday life in which people coparticipate with others and learn from those interactions. Examples include religious congregations, university students, staff meetings, and colleagues working together on a project team.

However, a community of practice is different from a project team in that the community of practice enables its members to share an interest and allows them to learn together. “It is defined by knowledge rather than by task, and exists because participation has value to its members” (Wenger, 1998, p.2). A community of practice is also not a network of employees: It is more than a set of relationships. “It has an identity as a community, and thus shapes the identities of its members” (Wenger, p.4). The community of practice model provides a forum for members from numerous projects to come together to strengthen their understanding of their practice or craft. A community is a different form of the organizational structure: It is not a discrete organizational functional unit. People may belong to multiple communities of practice while they belong to a project team.


Communities of Practice at NASA

The knowledge sharing themes reflected in communities of practice have increasingly grown in popularity among practitioners (Chindgren & Wiswell, 2006). Notably, organizational development practitioners have used the communities of practice approach—such as Lave and Wenger’s apprenticeship model (Lave & Wenger, 1991)—when recommending to senior management workplace approaches for organizational learning and knowledge management. Currently, the U.S. government is reviewing learning strategies that can best develop their workforce. Driving the government’s shift towards practicing knowledge management is the fact that 53% of its civil workforce is eligible to retire over the next five years (Liebowitz, 2004). Because of this, the U.S. government is now struggling to prepare their less experienced employees to move into increasingly available positions. Since many of the less experienced employees are not prepared to step into these roles and perform at a level that satisfies many of the government’s needs, the communities of practice model offers the government an approach to developing its younger employees and leveraging the knowledge possessed by its more experienced employees before they leave the workplace.

In the years since Lave and Wenger (1991) published their seminal work, other researchers and practitioners have diagnosed and discussed the elements comprising communities of practice. A review of the literature yields two key themes: the link between knowledge and activity and the importance of relationships. By applying theory, I examine these themes as these exist within the National Aeronautics and Aerospace Administration (NASA) and as these address NASA’s knowledge sharing and learning efforts. I selected NASA as my subject of study because the organization has a long tradition of innovation and because it is currently initiating efforts to maximize human capital, efforts that include encouraging the development of communities of practice.

Traditional Project Management Learning and Development Efforts at NASA

NASA was founded in 1958 and has consistently been identified as a leading producer of—and a significant contributor to—scientific and technological feats in air and space. The organization employs approximately 18,000 civil servants and 160,000 contractors in a variety of positions such as scientists, engineers, technicians, administrators, contract officers, educators, and outreach specialists (APPEL, 2006; Chindgren, 2002). The personnel are generally stationed either at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. or at one of the ten centers or numerous field facilities and laboratories across the United States.

Within NASA is the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL). This department is responsible for developing program and project leaders; it is currently creating forums that enable participants to gather together—in person—to share knowledge and learn from each other. This operation is a relatively new approach for NASA. A brief overview of the evolution of activities will establish a context for the current effort to foster communities of practice. This historical perspective reflects NASA’s growing awareness of the dynamics of learning in the workplace. It pinpoints the challenges confronting NASA.

When it was launched in 1988, the organizational predecessor to APPEL operated with a mission of continually responding to NASA’s changing environment and direction. Early on, the unit focused on program and project management training that would provide foundational knowledge to future generations of NASA project managers. With this, NASA also understood that training could not replace two critical sources—time and duration to gain professional experience in the real world of projects and an unstated but essential reliance on a previous generation of project talent who would naturally serve as mentors, coaches, and expert guides (APPEL, 2006). At the time, NASA was managing large, expensive, long-duration programs like Apollo and the Shuttle, both of which generated numerous organizational learning opportunities.

Four years into this program, in 1993, NASA embarked on a new era of revitalization with projects that were smaller, faster, and cheaper (Boyle, 2002). It was during this era that NASA emphasized doing more with less; it subsequently increased—significantly—the volume of its project work. And it did so in a way that emphasized safety, innovation, low cost, speed, and quality. Such a demanding vision dramatically altered the nature of NASA’s project management practice and the way it developed its talent. NASA began relying on curriculum-driven programs: It implemented a major effort to identify the core competencies that program and project leaders need to achieve success at different career stages. In developing a competency-driven project management practice, the organization attempted to link critical project competencies to NASA-sanctioned learning and education. As a result, by the mid-1990s, the organization increasingly emphasized career development, curriculum certification, benchmarking and research, and job aids and tools. It was during those years that NASA laid the groundwork that would enable it to significantly broaden and diversify—more than originally envisioned—its developmental organization (APPEL, 2006).

Tremendous changes also occurred within the NASA’s business environment. Many of these changes were driven by federally mandated directives and programs, such as the President's Management Agenda and the Human Capital Plan. Other changes included the increasing focus on operating as a business, using competition to increase productivity, shrinking budgets, and developing new technologies. These strategic, administrative, social, and technical changes were largely the responsibility of the project management workforce. In a short span of time the responsibility of project managers has shifted from a pure focus on mission (technical, business, safety, and customer satisfaction) success to responsibility for business management, commercialization, new technology identification and development, customer satisfaction, strategy, and much more (APPEL, 2006). The question then confronting NASA was how does it—as safely, efficiently, and effectively as possible—meet the challenges involved in managing its current project portfolio?

NASA responded to this question by evolving APPEL’s mission: The unit was to develop and support the individuals who lead the teams that carry out NASA's programs and projects. This mission was accomplished through research and services involving career development activities and tools, such as promoting performance enhancement to projects and knowledge sharing communities of practice.

Current Project Management Learning and Development Efforts at NASA

To enhance the capability of program and project leaders, APPEL created four business lines: career development, performance enhancement, research and advanced concepts, and knowledge sharing. Career development provides products and services around professional development competencies and training and development. Performance enhancement brings world-class experts and learning directly to NASA’s programs and project teams when they need it, where they need it, and how they need it. Research and advanced concepts engages universities in world-class research and conducts workshops designed to foster the exchange of ideas between NASA program/project leaders and university researchers. Knowledge sharing focuses on building and supporting NASA communities of practice for the express purpose of promoting leadership development through mentoring and teaching, by encouraging open communication and dialogue and by capturing and communicating knowledge and wisdom from the best program and project leaders.

APPEL’s Knowledge Sharing Program has three components: the Forum of Master Project Managers, Transfer Wisdom Workshops, and ASK magazine. Launched in December 2000, ASK magazine (Academy Sharing Knowledge) is available as both an online and a print publication and features a column on best practices and stories on project management as well as subject-related interviews and book reviews. The stories are gathered from the Master Forums and Wisdom Transfer Workshops. Through its knowledge sharing efforts, APPEL exemplifies the two key themes identified in the communities of practice literature: the link between knowledge and activity and the importance of relationships.

Link between Knowledge and Activity

Practitioners generally agree that problem-solving and learning from experience are part of everyday life (Argyris 1991; Hoffman, 2003). Many now also believe that organizations benefit most when individuals share the knowledge they have obtained from their experience in working with others on organizational tasks as opposed to their sharing theoretically based information (Matthews & Candy, 1999; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Brown and Duguid (1991) believed that “experience at work creates its own knowledge and as most work is a collective, cooperative venture, so most depositional knowledge is intriguingly collective—less held by individuals than shared by work groups” (p. 40).

A community of practice enables the process of creating, sharing, and applying new knowledge that is social and dynamic. Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) described how, in a knowledge-creating organization, this process moves from the personal to the social, and in doing so, builds on tacit as well as explicit knowledge in way they described as a knowledge-creating spiral. And because today’s workplace is increasingly viewed as an essentially boundless environment, with knowledge passing across disciplinary and organizational boundaries, organizations are using technology to amplify the contribution of the knowledge-creating spiral.

The community-of-practice model is based on the idea that one cannot separate knowledge from practice (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). As a result, a community of practice shares knowledge in living ways as opposed to the traditional approach of recording knowledge in databases or documents. Even when organizations publish such knowledge in a manual, the knowledge is frequently highly contextual. And despite using such a documentary approach, organizations cannot fully collect the knowledge of its project teams. In a community of practice, members come together to learn from each other. And although learning occurs in planned, deliberate programs, much of the knowledge people acquire comes through self-directed or group-based learning activities created by the members themselves. Matthews and Candy (1999) claimed that perhaps as much as 90% of learning “actually occurs incidentally or adventitiously, including through exposure to the opinions and practices of others also working in the same context” (p. 49). Wilson, Desmond, and Roberts (1994) have contended that the community-of-practice model of knowledge sharing is especially helpful when members have tacit knowledge and when—by working together—they recreate and reinterpret knowledge for other activities.

At NASA, such a fostering of coparticipation entails gathering together individuals who perform similar tasks and engaging them to share best practices in the form of storytelling. Storytelling is increasingly used throughout the organization to simplify the complex ideas related to project leadership as well as to inspire change. The focus of the Transfer Wisdom Workshop is to provide a forum for program and project leaders to share their stories about their work experiences. Since this initiative’s November 2001 inception, workshop participants have crafted stories from their work experiences and then discussed concrete examples of best practices and lessons learned (Lee, 2003). Participants may or may not recognize that a group activity results in knowledge sharing, but they leave the forum able to share what they have learned with others, perhaps in other communities of practice or their project teams.

Relationships are Key

When NASA reduced its overall civil service workforce by 26%, and reduced its Headquarters staff by 50%, both between the fiscal years of 1993 and 2000, it compromised knowledge sharing between experienced project leaders and journeyman-level project leaders. The subsequent organizational restructuring and cutbacks resulted in a 52% reduction in supervisory positions and a 15% reduction in Senior Executive Service, the Federal government’s most senior management level. On an agency-wide basis, the supervisor-to-employee ratio went from 1:6 to 1:10. These changes reduced the number of on-site mentors and experienced project managers, placing new demands on creating innovative and accelerated strategies to enhance learning and development. The APPEL leadership quickly recognized the need to foster relationships. As McDermott (1999) states:

Learning traditionally gets measured on the assumption that it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their heads … [Rather] learning is in the relationships between people. Learning is in the conditions that bring people together and organize a point of contact that allows for particular pieces of information to take on relevance; without the points of contact, without the system of relevancies, there is not learning, and there is little memory. Learning does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations of which they are a part. (p. 17)

In order to encourage these conversations, the APPEL leadership leveraged two types of relationships. First, the APPEL program representatives, known as knowledge sharing champions, encourage participation and establish relationships. They visit centers, sell APPEL through presentations, improve APPEL visibility, seek participants, and confirm buy-in (Hoffman, 2003). Furthermore, these champions ask experienced project mangers to recommend less experienced project managers for the workshop. As the former coordinator of the programs, Lee (2003) believes that this personal recommendation “goes along with our vision of knowledge sharing as a grassroots initiative” (p. 16). Instead of appearing as if the invitation was a headquarters-driven request for attendance, a respected, seasoned project manager extends the invitation. As a result potential participants are more likely to attend.

Second, and more characteristic of communities of practice, APPEL encourages relationships among program participants. APPEL leadership believes that the programs offer participants an opportunity to learn from—and network across—the agency. It views face-to-face contact as an important and tremendously valuable lesson learned. Although technology can enable communication, it is the interpersonal relationships that contribute to learning within the NASA workplace (E. Hoffman, personal communication, November 3, 2003). Additionally, the people that APPEL invites to the workshop are not necessarily project managers or even people on a project management career track. They are, however, members of the project community (e.g., procurement, systems engineering, human resources) who can contribute to knowledge sharing. These participants are also a part of other communities of practice, and after they participate in this forum, they can share their newly acquired knowledge with others.

The leadership at APPEL believes that the knowledge sharing activities are successful, and although evidence for this is currently anecdotal, it is implementing an effort to measure contributory value of these the activities to NASA’s mission accomplishment (E. Hoffman, personal communication, November 3, 2003). APPEL’s Knowledge Sharing Program—particularly its lessons learned sessions—are reassuring NASA’s leadership that there is valuable knowledge at each NASA location (i.e., headquarters, centers, field facilities). In addition, it has become apparent that each person, regardless of experience, actively contributes to the knowledge sharing process (Hoffman, 2003). These contributions have been acknowledged in the Master Forums, Wisdom Transfer Workshops, and ASK magazine.

Conclusions and Implications for Project Management Learning

With an understanding that learning is social and comes largely from our experience of participating in daily tasks, NASA has been able to increase participation in its learning programs and subsequently develop its human capital. Given APPEL’s mission of developing program and project managers, NASA’s embrace of the apprenticeship model—which develops the next generation of managers by bringing together less experienced project leaders and seasoned project professionals—is an appropriate approach.

And since individual project team members generally belong to—and identify with—multiple project teams and communities of practice both within and beyond their organization, they have countless opportunities to create new knowledge because their project teams and their communities of practice function as nodes for exchanging and interpreting knowledge. Unlike their temporal project teams, however, their communities or practice are usually ongoing ventures. And these communities of practice usually retain knowledge in living ways that allow members to respond to project-specific issues with customized solutions. Those belonging to a community of practice participate together in creating knowledge, in discussing novel ideas, in tackling problems, and in monitoring developments affecting their organization, developments both internal and external. These activities help steward competencies for all members and keep the organization on the cutting edge. These communities of practice are not temporary like teams: These communities are organized around matters that are important to the members; these communities provide members with a home before, during, and after a project (Wenger, 1998).

It is through their shared memberships—with project teams and communities of practice—that project professionals coparticipate with others and learn from these interactions. Only recently, however, have project professionals directed their attention towards sharing and acquiring knowledge through social interactions and within project-oriented environments. This is ironic development: Project teams are an important mode of organizing roles and responsibilities in an organization and are generally responsible for developing new products and processes (Bresnen, Edelman, Newell, Scarbrough, & Swan, 2003).

This paper examined the nexus of projects and communities of practice in relation to the presumption that the collective knowledge of project team members is necessary in helping organizations and project teams accomplish project objectives and organizational goals. This paper proposed that a community-of-practice approach to knowledge sharing is one tool that encourages and enables organizational learning both within and across projects.

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©2006 Project Management Institute



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