NASA’s new mission: Manage institutional knowledge

Space agency will use collaborative technologies to capture and share lessons learned

NASA’s ability to manage its employees’ knowledge lags behind its engineering successes. But under pressure from lawmakers and congressional auditors, the agency is trying to fix that problem.

NASA will soon complete a knowledge management system to comply with legislation that requires the agency to share lessons learned from past missions. NASA officials expect the new system — the NASA Engineering Network (NEN) — to be ready by the end of September.

Before the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA maintained a database in which employees voluntarily entered lessons-learned information. But agency employees rarely consulted the database, limiting its usefulness.

“Once in a while, people would stick something in, and less than once in a while, people would check it to get information,” said Gregory Robinson, NASA’s deputy chief engineer, who is leading NEN’s development.

NASA began working on the knowledge management system about 18 months ago, after congressional auditors at the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about information sharing at NASA. A GAO study found that NASA’s managers were not using the existing database. GAO officials also determined that database searches generated too many results, making it difficult to find an applicable lesson.

GAO officials outlined their concerns in a 2002 report, “NASA: Better Mechanisms Needed for Sharing Lessons Learned.” The report states that NASA managers relied on system and engineering reviews, program and project briefings, and informal discussions with colleagues rather than the database.

NASA’s new knowledge management system will have several components, including the Lessons Learned Information System, which the agency is testing now. The Web portal provides advanced capabilities for searching or browsing 48 NASA engineering repositories. It uses semantic search technologies to retrieve structured and unstructured data. The system searches only accredited data sources, not informal blog entries or notes.

In addition to the Lessons Learned portal, the knowledge management system will have a communities of practice portal with instant messaging and search functions, which Robinson said would be the system’s greatest benefit. By using communities of practice, for example, an engineer could consult with a group of experts via an interactive message board. If a scientist needed to conduct a test in a thermal vacuum chamber but was unsure how to set it up, experienced NASA engineers could offer suggestions in real time. The system would record the conversation for future reference.

An expertise locator will complete NEN. By using the locator, a scientist could enter a phrase or a string of terms, such as “thermal test,” and the system would generate a list of experts associated with that term and their contact information.

To encourage scientists and engineers to use the collaborative system, NASA created an agencywide Lessons Learned Steering Committee, which has members from each of NASA’s 10 centers. The committee members train others to use the system.

Early tests of NEN have been successful, Robinson said. “People are getting a lot more information easier and quicker than before,” he said.

George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a nonprofit group representing the public’s interest in space exploration, said it would be a sad irony if NASA’s internal network is not as sophisticated as its extraterrestrial missions.

“NASA, as creator and user of some of our nation’s highest technology, should be using the latest tools to tackle institutional knowledge management,” he said. “I hope that NEN meets that standard.”

NASA has already made strides in retaining and sharing established knowledge, Whitesides said. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter put itself into orbit around the red planet March 10. NASA avoided mistakes made during previous failed Mars visits.

“Recent successes indicate that they are doing better,” Whitesides said. “Project management of space missions is an art and a science, and NASA has been working hard to strike the right skill and experience mix on projects.”

NASA gets serious about not repeating mistakesNASA is completing a knowledge management system — the NASA Engineering Network (NEN) — that managers hope will help the agency learn from its successes and mistakes. One aspect of that system is a Lessons Learned portal that describes events, records lessons learned and includes recommendations for future actions.

Here is a sample of the kind of knowledge that NASA software engineers can share using NEN.

Public lessons learned entry: 1466

Lesson number: 1466

Lesson date: 2003-08-31

Submitting organization: Johnson Space Center

Submitted by: David Lengyel

Subject: Accident investigations/software tool selection

Abstract: Difficulties with the software tool selected to support the space shuttle Columbia accident investigation reveal the need for an experienced team familiar with information technology requirements for large-scale accident investigations involved in selecting software.

Lessons learned: A team of people experienced in IT requirements for a large-scale accident investigation should perform a functional requirements analysis before selecting a software tool. The team should identify in advance the IT security requirements necessary to safeguard sensitive data.


  • Integrate individual tools into a system that is evaluated and available before the start of an accident investigation.
  • Anticipate that accident investigation teams might need more than one set of tools.
  • Avoid tools that are unfamiliar to investigation staff or tools that are overly complex.
  • Approval information
    Approval date: 2004-06-16
    Approval name: Ronald Montague
    Approval organization: Johnson Space Center

    Source: NASA


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