Saturday, February 28, 2009

Transforming NASA

Again, some great comments from my readers: My responses are below.


I particularly liked this:

I personally don't take major issue with our hierarchical structure and believe that it's essential in being an effective organization, especially given our size. I believe the question should actually be: "How do you transform the organization, into one where employees can openly contribute, in all facets of organizational operations?"

And this...

As an organization, we have leaders who have a vast amount of experience combined and are in positions to make decisions based on their knowledge and those very experiences

We do indeed have many, many smart people within NASA--our Gray Eminences who built Apollo and Shuttle; the next generation of managers, who are leading the current projects like Constellation, Ares, Orion, LRO, Kepler, etc.; and the new generation, who is gung-ho to bring in the dot-com ethos and a lot of new toys to the table to make things move more quickly. All of these experience bases need to be integrated in an environment of continued budget wariness, economic uncertainty, and increased activity in the private sector, which is understandably trying to recruit the best-and-brightest, wherever they can find them.

I also liked Tim's idea for a "NASA 101" class. Disney had something similar--a couple somethings, actually:

  • "Disney Traditions," which is a basic indoctrination into the Disney culture and is, I believe, required of all cast members at Walt Disney World.
  • "Disney University," where managers and salaried employees (independent contributors) learn the basics about budgets, HR compliance, marketing, etc. After 16 classes, I got a certificate of some kind that indicated I'd taken the relevant courses.

I also liked this from Tim:

The other important factor is to have managers trained in effectively evaluating advice from less-experienced employees. Clear expectations and a defined process for evaluating (and enacting!) new ideas are critical to empowering the employees. The whole system of training, evaluation, and feedback must be in place to support systemic changes in the organization.

Not sure what that would look like, but if I'm reading it correctly, it's an opportunity for every new employee to act and think like a consultant and for management to exchange ideas.

I did download and read the "Next 20 Years" article Nick recommended. It is useful reading, and nearly worth the $6.95 I paid for it. There are obviously other forces at work on NASA than just generations being born, making their impact, and retiring.

  • We have the current recession, which might cause some folks to hold off on retirement
  • An ongoing war overseas, which has increased concerns about the security of our cutting-edge technologies and reduced the number of tech-savvy foreign nationals who come here to stay
  • A decline in the number of students studying STEM disciplines, which is constraining the "pipeline" for qualified scientists, engineers, etc.

It is, indeed, an exciting time to be in the space business, but that excitement is both positive and negative. There is great promise but also great uncertainty, and the challenges at hand are many-faceted. I've heard concerns that if NASA starts reviewing its overall mission or function, there is the likelihood that programs could be cut. This overlooks the potential that the discussions might improve the public's reception of the space program and might result in an increase the budget to do all the things currently on the agency's plate and more.

So, in addition to Madi's rephrasing of my previous question...

How do you transform the organization, into one where employees can openly contribute, in all facets of organizational operations?

We might also ask:

Assuming the agency makes this transformation, what should NASA do? This is a question for the agency and its employees, but also the taxpayers and our elected leadership.

Lots to do: where to start?

1 comment:

Madi said...

Along with Tim's suggestions, I'd also like to throw the following into the mix:

In order to continue to be successful in our endeavors, I think it's important to consider the process that we take internally to impart that knowledge onto the next generation of employees (a subtle note I'd also like to add here is that I'm not just speaking of the Gen Y workforce; but rather, I mean to include even those who transition over to new positions, i.e. those who are just starting out within the agency).

Just as you said, Bart, we've got so many smart people at NASA - the subset of these folks who are in positions to make substantial decisions have knowledge and experiences that help them make those very decisions. We should work to ensure that those who will one day hold these very positions have available to them all of the resources to make sure they make the soundest decisions.

Along with figuring out the answer to the question, "How do we know someone has enough knowledge and experience to be a leader within the agency?", we should also work to determine what the process of knowledge transfer should be. I don't think this necessarily includes technical or job-specific knowledge. It should also include leadership development from day one, so that when the technical knowledge has been gained to an acceptable and useable degree, and an employee is ready to take on a position where their decisions and opinions influence the direction of their group, their center, or even the agency, he or she can put into practice the theories and practices that have been acquired throughout the knowledge, experience, and leadership development process.

I think benchmarking corporate organizations who have existing new employee development programs to assess which components could be used internally would be a significant start to understanding how these transformations we've all been discussing could be implemented. Every employee is different, and so it should be no surprise to anyone that their value sets will all be different. Making an effort to assess these values and develop as customized as possible training plans that allow the employee to feel connected to the agency's mission, while also imparting knowledge and cultivating experiences, can ensure that the agency has a group of happy and contributing employees - a significant asset to any organization, in my opinion.

OK, that's all I've got! Thanks, Bart, for letting us contribute here - it's definitely an interesting discussion!