Following Up On Gen Y and NASA
Yesterday's posting on the latest "Gen Y presentation" produced some great, thought-provoking comments. Nick's response deserves to be quoted and responded to, so I'll do that below and try to comment where I think appropriate.
Another reader comment from "1963" actually anticipated some of my thoughts:
Re: “bigger challenges
”If you have any insight into what those “bigger challenges” are, I’d love to hear them. We’re actually going through a process of sorts right now to identify them and I’d really like to get you involved in those discussions.
Perhaps I'm just another grumpy old man, but sometimes these Gen-Y inputs sound like folks who demand to be respected before they have paid any dues that can be respected. While it takes smarts to come up with a good idea, it takes wisdom to know how to get it implemented in a large, political bureaucracy. And while we can complain and wish that NASA wasn't a large, political bureaucracy - the reality is what it is, and the odds of it changing are low. But does that mean we give up? Or does that mean we use our smarts to work the politics in our favor?
Here's what work comes down to for me: performance, process, politics, and people.
- Performance boils down to the content: do you know your stuff? Are you conversant enough with the actual work being performed? Depending on the complexity of your job, mastery of it could take anywhere from one hour to one month to one year to a lifetime. I look at this shakedown part of a job as ending when I know enough to understand the tasks and boundaries expected of the content. No one respects "the new guy" until s/he has been around long enough to know the business and make positive contributions. In some jobs, the new-guy perspective is wanted/valued/respected up front (consultants come to mind), while in others a "new guy" might be anyone with less than 10 years of experience. I've heard of such organizations, and the only way to win them over is to get down enough of the language to let the others know you can speak it.
- Processes are the things one must do to function in the organization: do you know where to get office supplies? Do you know how to get information from one group or another? Do you know which forms must be used to accomplish tasks?
- Politics are pretty straightforward as well: what are the organizational and power relationships within a particular work group? Woe to the newbie who starts talking about their politics or telling jokes in the first week without a complete understanding of the local norms. Office politics also define the boundaries of how you advance your own agenda (once you understand the content and the processes).
- People are who you have to work with, day in and day out. Do you understand what drives your coworkers? Do you know who knows what you need to know? Knowledge of individual motivations can be different from political knowledge. You might find someone who plays a very smooth political game, but once you get to know them one on one, you might find that they hate the game but play it out of sheer self-defense. This doesn't mean being best-buddies with everyone in the office, but it does mean having more than a vague realization of the other personalities in the room.
The point of all these basic definitions is that you need a knowledge of all of them to be truly effective in any workplace. And, as I was a pain-in-the-neck twentysomething 15-odd years ago, I can tell you that I learned most of these lessons the hard way by trying to do or fix things MY way first without bothering to learn the way things worked around me. I get the whole youthful enthusiasm thing and the desire to change the world and fix things that are obviously broken right now. However (again, after butting heads with more than a few managers in the hospitality and defense industries), I eventually had to learn to slow down, find out why things operated the way they did, and then figure out the most effective way to use the system as it is to move things in a more positive direction.
Admittedly, this is my personal approach, and might not work with everyone. However, I sometimes sense that youthful impatience in the presentations OpenNASA produces, and I've talked to enough people (like 1963) to know that Gen Y's desire to come in and fix/change things without "learning the system" or "paying their dues" can grate. Obviously, the world is changing and Gen X and the Boomers aren't getting any younger. But the Xers and the Boomers have been with the organization a bit longer, and so have a better handle on what's going on, how to get things done, and what to expect of this or that decision/idea. And there's also seniority to consider. Some people are not eager to be shown the door to make room for someone half their age, especially in the middle of a recession. I'm not saying that's what you're saying, but that's how some people perceive the presentations.
One thing I've noted especially among the young is a distinct impatience with "war stories," those long rambles that can come out of the mouth of older folks (you know--anyone over 30) about some event way back in the Dark Ages (like, the 1990s). Eyes roll, sighs blow forth, and the youth crosses their arms, hoping the lecture or story will end soon. But those stories are a great deal of how human beings and institutions carry on institutional knowledge. I've heard folks talk until they're blue in the face about "knowledge management systems" and "collecting lessons learned," but the fact remains that if someone's got a question about a particular type of problem, they're more likely to march down the hall, collar an old-timer ("graybeard" being the un-PC term) and ask, "Hey, how did you solve X on Shuttle/Apollo?"
I don't think the impatience problem is a particularly Gen Y problem. Like I said, I had it myself. It's just something to think about. It's not all about the new toys/technologies. Sometimes it's about the stories and the relationships you build. One thing I'd like to see NASA try is a pairing-up of graybeard mentors with rookie engineers/scientists as a living means of knowledge transfer.
Re: “brain heavy”
That’s an interesting point. I made this presentation in particular with the Digital Astronaut (DA) project in mind – which, is brain heavy. Academics, scientists, doctors, and all that stuff. I’ll give some more thought to your observation but one thought I have on this subject is even the folks “bending metal, installing wiring, turning wrenches, and welding structures” have ideas they’d love to share. In fact, those ideas are some of the most valuable ones you can get because they are the ones who are “doing it.”
Good point. My "four P's" above would apply to this group as well.
I think there’s a pretty big misconception behind the “Gen Y” label and how it’s been spun that’s its all about the technology and fancy web 2.0 gadgets. That’s not how I see it for sure, and as a project manager, my goal with DA is going to be able to figure out how to utilize the functionality of collaborative technology without creating barriers for people to contribute. It’s a starting point, not an ending point, and something I know will take quite a bit of continuous iteration to get right. That will probably mean not using all the bells and whistles on whatever website we put up. It will also mean augmenting whatever we do with other ways of interaction. I definitely get that and it’s a big part of our plan. I’ll try to do a better job of spelling that out next time – heck, maybe that’s a whole other presentation in itself. Hmm….
Okay, that makes sense. But, again, some people might not be comfortable with your new digital environment. I experienced one of my first neo-Luddite moments this week when I learned that I've got to transition from Office 2003 to 2007, which has a completely different interface for Microsoft Word. Okay, go ahead and laugh, but I've been using the same interface professionally, with moderate changes over the years, since 1996. That's 13 years of using the same program, but by golly, I know the system I've got, and can play it like a Stradivarius. Now I've got to readjust all of my usual keyboard and mouse rhythms. My productivity will drop for a few weeks (or months) as I spend time deciphering the new menus, taking classes to learn a whole new set of shortcuts, and in general grousing about the evils of Bill Gates and his merry band of outlaw programmers. All I'd ask is that you consider the user habits of other (older) audiences.
You talked about how these tools will enable people to make fundamentally better contributions than they might make f2f. That’s something that I flush out more verbally in the talk itself, and hopefully I’ll find some time to write those notes up into a post on opennasa.com sometime soon, but essentially… yes. Again, I’ll go back to the DA project. Even the team I work with is spread out across the country. I wish we werent’ because we all much prefer F2F meetings. Part of what we are building will be built out of necessity for us to collaborate on our own project! I think that’s great and will really
help drive out the requirements, which will help us clearly articulate exactly what contributions we are looking for. We hope to have this flushed out when we launch a few months from now. But one of the major goals of the DA is to gather input from scientists, coders, doctors, students, academics, and people from all over the place. The contributions themselves can be in a few different buckets, including improving the actual code structure of the model, adding to the knowledge base behind the model, and building on the “hypothesis” of the model to run experiments and simulations and ultimately help us develop countermeasures and buy down the risk of sending humans on long duration space flights. Our eventual website will have the audiences clearly defined as well as what contributions we’re looking for. It will no doubt be a big challenge, but also one that would be immensely valuable if we can accomplish it because it won’t be just NASA funded scientists and engineers looking at the problem any more, but others as well. I’m convinced that broadening our scope of input will
help provide better solutions in the end.
Re: Global Marketplace
I think DA is a good example of what this can look like for NASA. Not everything can be out their for external collaboration for the reasons you highlighted. But there is a portion of what we do that can. If we open up the items in our work portfolio that can be collaborated on publicly, it would help us leverage our already overworked internal resources. The DA is about human physiology and science. There’s a huge reliance on knowledge from the medical profession, which is an opportune thing to open up to an outside community of collaborators.
Re: moving forward
If you’ve been following the discussion as Bart and I have, you hear a lot of feedback given that we need concrete examples of what this looks like at NASA (versus just talking about it). Although I do think there is a lot of education and awareness that also needs to be done (hence the presentations), I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, its not as easy as just being able to implement some of this stuff for the average joe at NASA for a host of reasons. Luckily, I’m in a place now that I really have an opportunity (and authority) to share a knowledge asset (the computational model that is DA) with the world and work with others on further developing the body of knowledge and digital
analogue for all to use. My hope is that not only will NASA benefit, but that people around the world will benefit by using DA as an “innovation incubator” of sorts. I see the government’s role as one of an integrator of knowledge and a facilitator of collaboration – ultimately providing the right ingredients to enable innovation and keep pushing science and exploration forward. The idea of a lone genius, sitting in his office cubicle, coming up with “the great idea” is mysterious and romantic, but maybe a bit unrealistic. True innovation happens when you have knowledge brokers taking even old tried ideas, and applying them in new ways. I’m hoping the DA helps make that happen.
When it comes to making better contributions, the primary arguments I've read--on NASAWatch and elsewhere--focus on "Showing me the money." We need high-power, high-efficiency, high-capability, low-weight spacecraft and launch vehicles. How will DA or other collaborative enviroments bring about those results? Back up those answers with data, and your agenda will move forward swiftly.
I look forward to viewing DA in more detail. Again, I would like to throw in a recommendation or two from a technical writer's point of view.
- Who is your audience? I'm guessing web-minded people, yes? Well, that will probably mean a younger audience, meaning you might lose an older audience. You need to consider alternate delivery methods for those of us addicted to hard copies. Booklets, handouts, white papers, and other more traditional media, while passé in some quarters, are still traditional and acceptable media for conveying messages within NASA.
- Also, what do you want your audience to do or how do you want them to react after using the information on DA? This means designing your application, interface, and outputs with particular needs in mind.
- How much data does your audience need to accomplish what they will want from the product?
Anyway, this was a really long response, but as you can probably tell, one that I’m passionate about. I’d love to talk to anyone who has any thoughts, in particular about how to create an online, open-source, computational model of human physiology (digital astronaut).
My response was pretty long, too. If you made it this far, congratulations. Thanks for continuing to prompt and provoke debate, Nick. There are things to be done on all sides of the debate, including mine.