The science of project management

NASA's homegrown project management academy is launching a research program to enrich the space agency's knowledge of project management and its ability to manage a greater number of programs.

The agency has joined forces with the Universities Space Research Association, a consortium of universities, to create the NASA/USRA Center for Program/Project Management Research. This virtual center, as its officials describe it, will sponsor research into aerospace project management.

The first round of research proposals was due earlier this month. The announcement, which drew interest from more than two dozen universities, called for "proposals that are well structured, defendable, that demonstrate a solid return on investment to NASA and that will lead to practical downstream applications."

Edward Hoffman, director of NASA's Academy of Program and Project Leadership, said the research program responds to "a concern that we're too insular at NASA....We typically look internal to NASA for solutions to the problems we have." Because contractors perform 90 percent of the agency's work, he added, NASA already has access to the commercial culture of project management. Now NASA officials are tapping the knowledge of the academic community in its quest for fresh ideas.

The university research begins with a six-month introductory phase. After that, some researchers will be chosen to undertake projects lasting two or three years. The center's budget is about $1 million a year.

David Holdridge, USRA's associate director, said the association is a well-established vehicle for collaboration between NASA and universities on scientific challenges, particularly in the physical sciences. The new initiative extends that relationship into management expertise.

NASA's Academy of Program and Project Leadership already has an extensive program that includes training, consultation, publications and other knowledge-sharing activities to build project management competence within the agency. Hoffman said the academy is working with 30 NASA programs. "We're being pulled in to work on a lot of the projects, real-time, when they need it, with the real challenges," he said.

He said NASA had a few large programs under way. In recent years, the trend has been to undertake a larger number of smaller, shorter projects. But more projects mean more managers. Other changes in the project management landscape occur continually, so "almost every two years there's a need to update the competency framework."

Hoffman is an advocate of sharing project management experiences. When managers describe their strategies to one another, he said, they become more conscious of their expertise. "What we're trying to do in knowledge sharing is trying to make that tacit knowledge more visible, more understood," Hoffman said.

The academic research seeks to pass successful project management practices to the next generation of managers, he said.

"Successful projects are built on people who are able to collaborate successfully and have trust with each other," he said.

Ferris is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. She can be reached at ferrisn@att.net.

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Elements of the project

Through its new project management center, NASA officials hope to create a project management think tank that will help develop better ways and standard operating procedures for running agency projects rather than seeking outside help from consultants.

Among the center's goals:

Validating and implementing needed changes to the risk assessment and safety review culture within the agency.

Supporting career development for NASA's program/project managers.

Developing a highly effective system for sharing lessons learned and best practices.

Identifying NASA-specific strategic project types as a means of developing baseline templates to guide project and program managers.

Improving program reviews, interaction, team building, leadership, decision-making, workforce planning and communication.

Source: NASA

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