NASA teams work together in cyberspace

NASA hasn't made human teleporting a reality yet, but the agency has overcome geographical barriers to bring together members of the aerospace community.

In another move toward decentralization, NASA has deployed eRoom Technology Inc.'s hosted enterprise service to enable its employees — as well as its industry, international and university partners — to communicate with one another regardless of location. The service manages all aspects of the company's virtual collaboration software, freeing agency staff to focus on swapping ideas in cyberspace.

NASA teams are spread throughout the world, and the agency's 10 centers have long operated with nonintegrated systems.

Although its mission to explore the universe is unique, NASA is not alone in adopting collaboration tools. Several agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, have turned to eRoom to solve the problem of cross-continental information sharing.

By creating a common ground, "eRoom ends up being a Switzerland," said Steve Telio, a product manager for the company.

After last September's terrorist attacks, NASA chief information officer Lee Holcomb — now detailed to the Office of Homeland Security — wanted to cut travel but still get the agency's work done, according to Richard Brozen, deputy CIO at NASA.

The agency collaborated with Gartner Inc. and META Group Inc. to find a solution. "What NASA was really looking for was a set of tools their people can use to work together in a sort of informal way...a framework to support the group rather than the individual," said Simon Hayward, Gartner's vice president and research director.

During the summer, NASA launched a one-year pilot program to experiment with low-level collaborative tools. "This is a capability that clearly exists in the outside [world], and we're seeing if we can use it," Brozen said. "We know there is a tremendous need for [these] tools."

Take the following scenario: The agency's CIOs, located at centers from California to Florida to Virginia, can't reasonably expect to tack documents to a bulletin board at one location. But they can post announcements and questions in the online CIO room created by eRoom.

"It used to be they could all come together in one physical place," Hayward said. "You [still] want to give them the opportunity to work together in the same place, [but now] that place is cyberspace."

Already, "they're using eRoom to strategize over the future of information technology standards," Telio said. Other applications include research planning, proposal management and project administration, according to eRoom officials. The tool facilitates data exchange, team brainstorming and the sharing of best practices.

CIOs aren't the program's only participants. The pilot project involves about 200 workers from a cross-section of departments and locations. The agency recently added WebEx Communications Inc. to the mix, primarily for virtual meetings.

Still, the program is not a brand-new effort, Brozen said. NASA has adopted other information-sharing tools. For instance, it 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. In June, NASA officials decided to renew their membership.

As with the Global Knowledge Network, eRoom does the behind-the-scenes work for NASA. Both are "being run as commercial ventures," Brozen said.

Although users can install the eRoom software themselves, NASA has outsourced the technical support. "They reap the benefits of eRoom and don't have to worry about the back end," Telio said.

That is a common approach. The agency has entered the next stage in its long-term transition to seat management, and the eRoom program is part of a larger effort aimed at "changing the way we do business," Brozen said.

NASA officials will decide in six to eight months whether to continue the pilot project. "I really don't know what the outcome is going to be," he said.

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