Wednesday, August 27, 2008

KM lesson - returing man to the moon

Picture this scenario: You’re in a rush to beat a competitor to achieve a very complicated goal. Tons of pressure is being applied to accomplish the goal first. You assemble the best of the best, and use a variety of large and small contractors to help you. After tons of trial and error, you complete it, have a huge success, win accolades, and then move on to another project. 35 years later, you’re asked to do the same thing without reinventing the wheel. Could you do it?

This is the case with NASA’s Ares project, taking man back to the moon 35 years after the fact. Weird Science did a great show titled space junkyard. It’s worth seeing from a knowledge management perspective.

A few points that were clear:
· In the rush and the pressure to accomplish, KM was not a priority.
· There was no central repository of all the files and data. Drawing still exist, but not the why (tacit knowledge) things were done that way was not captured.
· Much of the spacecraft was used in accomplishing the mission and remained in space. That’s why the junkyard is so important. NASA can reverse engineer some parts. The problem is they are working on final products, with no knowledge about the mistakes made along the way.
· Many of the contractors have gone out of business, their knowledge is gone.
· NASA engineers moved on to different projects or private companies soon after the mission. After 35 years, I’m sure most have long since retired.
· The problems and challenges remain the same and while there have been major advances in technology, the engineering is basically the same. In other words the same knowledge needed in 1969, is the knowledge needed today.

A Washington Post article describes the “Saga of the Lost Space Tapes.” The story gives another example about the missing lunar video tapes. They weren’t used much following the mission and for a variety of reasons (cumbersome, highly specialized format) were archived, moved, and eventually misplaced.

Can you blame NASA? Of course in hindsight people do, but at the time, in the rush of the space race, I’m sure 99.9% of us would be in the same place. What’s impressive to me is that NASA learned from this and has developed an excellent knowledge management program.

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