NASA taps knowledge net

After a positive experience, NASA plans to renew its membership in a knowledge-sharing club that enables it to swap project management stories with a cross-section of industry players, including Microsoft Corp.

The space agency joined the invitation-only Global Knowledge Network a year ago — the first U.S. agency to do so — to learn about best practices outside the public sector. Pleased with the benefits of association, it has decided to stay on for another year.

"It lets us take a look at our own practices and see how we stack up," said Jo Gunderson, a staff member at NASA's Academy of Program and Project Leadership (APPL).

It also has opened the door for further federal involvement. "The pot is really boiling right now," said Dalton Weekley, principal at Human Systems Knowledge Networks Inc., the U.S. branch of Human Systems Ltd., which runs the group. "We are looking at the defense side probably more than we ever have before."

Six British companies formed the network in the early 1990s. Today, it has around 70 members worldwide, including Sun Microsystems Inc., Microsoft and Nortel Networks Ltd., that represent a range of industries such as telecommunications, aerospace and pharmaceuticals.

Throughout its evolution, the mission has stayed the same: to help clients enhance their project management skills through best practices, lessons learned and continuous improvement.

"This gives NASA a much different perspective because we're not focused on government or nongovernment," Weekley said. "We're focused on management."

Human Systems, founded by Terry Cooke-Davies, its managing director, provides members — to the tune of $50,000 a year — with an enterprise project management profile that compares them with the finest and identifies gaps.

It maintains two major databases that maintain project and corporate information. It also runs meetings — in person and online — and workshops and offers individual project profiles at an additional cost (see box).

"There's a lot of these types of groups and organizations around the world," said French Caldwell, a Gartner Inc. research director. "By bringing people together around common issues they all face, they're able to share in a way they may not be able to in a public forum. Nobody likes to share their failures in public, but that's where you learn the most. It's a good approach."

Edward Hoffman, director of APPL, first heard about the network at a conference hosted by the Project Management Institute, a nonprofit professional association. The concept supports the academy's emphasis on knowledge sharing.

Despite some private- vs. public-sector concerns, NASA signed up. It wasn't disappointed.

"It's been really edifying to discover that the challenges are the same," Gunderson said. "Good project management practices are good project management practices whether you're working on a corporate bottom line or [being] a good steward of taxpayers' money."

In addition to its enterprise profile, APPL got involved in a metrics research project. It has shared its newfound network knowledge, including research results, with the larger NASA organization.

"It has allowed us to focus on some specific areas," Gunderson said. "We're working on performance management."

And, NASA can rely less on individual networking for knowledge sharing with companies. "To the extent it was being done [before] with the nonaerospace industry, it largely came in the form of personal contacts through professional organizations," she said.

Human Systems is now talking to other agencies and is particularly interested in the Defense Department, Weekley said. To get involved, organizations can contact the company, which checks if members have any objections before extending invitations.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for everybody to improve project management without giving away competitive advantage," Gunderson said.

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Members only

The Global Knowledge Network relies on technology as a way to help members interact. For instance, members can participate in virtual meetings, which almost always use Web hosting technology provided by Power Meeting Inc. This technology enables them to share ideas visually or to participate in presentations using Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint or Word documents to suggest or help create alternative solutions and then vote on them.

Confidential member information is kept in two primary databases and is released to another member only when Human Systems Knowledge Networks Inc. has received approval to do so. This typically happens when the member providing data is involved in a best-practice query during a virtual conference, in which a Human Systems facilitator is involved.

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