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TechTalks provide knowledge transfer within NASA’s Launch Services Program
October 3, 2019
Case Study: Solutions in Practice by Breanne Alzate
NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) is responsible for providing oversight and mission assurance to ensure mission success for spacecraft launching on unmanned rockets. Within the LSP, there is a team called the Industrial Engineering Network (iEN), which is a multi-disciplinary team of internal consultants who implement improvements and efficiencies and serve as forward-thinking change agents for LSP.
In 2014, succession planning became a high-priority, top-down strategic initiative within LSP because we have many single-point failures, many personnel eligible for retirement in the near future, positions with a high level of dependency and experienced subject matter experts. It became vital to ensure that the tribal knowledge that existed within the minds of these skilled personnel didn’t leave with them. The iE Network, in coordination with this strategic management initiative, took on the project of defining an avenue to transfer this sought-after knowledge.
Using a traditional systems engineering and project management approach, the iEN initially defined the project to include project concept, scope, end results/deliverables, assumptions, constraints, stakeholders, expectations of the customer, period of performance and owner of the end results/deliverables upon project completion.
To create a sustainable framework for a knowledge transfer program, we had to:
- Identify key positions.
- Create a course catalog and solicit student-suggested topics.
- Recruit teacher
- Establish branding and marketing
- Establish basic logistics and administrative actions.
- Advertise for attendance.
- Video record training sessions and store presentations.
- Promote post-training session collaboration with teachers.
- Identify potential candidates with interest in a given subject matter.
- Identify a training program owner after the program was established.
Within six months, the LSP TechTalks series was born. The name was a spin on TED Talks, but for technical knowledge. Once the program was established, branded and running, the iE Network executed a continuous improvement cycle using surveys, verbal feedback and observations. Characteristics, such as course length and classroom size, were adjusted over time to optimize attendance, engagement and technical depth.
LSP TechTalks are approximately one hour and occur one or two times per month. Originally, courses were 1.5 hours and occasionally occurred in larger meeting rooms. Using surveys and basic human factors observations, sessions were shortened and locations were limited to conference rooms large enough to hold approximately 50 people, yet small enough to promote collaboration and questions. These changes dramatically optimized engagement.
A complete course catalog was released to include topics ranging from “Rocket Engines 101” and “Contamination Control and Planetary Protection,” all the way to “Buying Rockets for NASA” and “Study of Failures.” Originally, there was no thought of deviating from the course catalog. However, as IEs, we see systematic misunderstandings within LSP on a daily basis. We used these observations and knowledge of issues on other projects to introduce ad hoc topics, as well as crowdsource additional topics via hallway whiteboards and post class surveys.
The most well-attended ad hoc topics come from employees who are on the verge of retiring. We ask that they share any key tribal knowledge, lessons learned and advice prior to their departure. The introduction of ad hoc topics has made the TechTalks program more dynamic, relevant and applicable to specific programmatic pain points.
The program is a successful way to promote knowledge-sharing, capture essential tribal knowledge, engage employees and provide people with a big picture and how they fit into the organization.
All TechTalks are recorded on video and archived for future training purposes or for people who could not attend in person. The archiving of these presentations has provided unforeseen benefits in the form of ready-to-go materials for new hires, interorganizational detail assignments and outreach presentations.
Apart from the sharing of technical knowledge, one of the biggest indirect benefits of the program is networking. After attending a TechTalk, employees then know who the subject matter expert is on a certain subject. These simple connections allow information and answers to flow more efficiently throughout an organization.
Upon the completion of multiple continuous improvement loops, the LSP TechTalks program was handed off to a permanent owner and has been running successfully since its 2014 inception. The program is a successful way to promote knowledge-sharing, capture essential tribal knowledge, engage employees and provide people with a big picture of how they fit into the organization. It continues to be a key avenue the LSP management team looks upon to assist in succession planning efforts.
If succession planning is a strategic concern in an organization, creating an established forum or method to transfer technical knowledge at all levels of the business is one bite of the succession planning elephant you can’t afford to ignore.
Breanne Alzate is an industrial engineer with a.i. solutions Inc., the prime contractor supporting NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP). Within LSP, she leads the Industrial Engineering Network (iEN), a multidisciplinary team of internal consultants who implement improvements and efficiencies and serve as forward-thinking change agents for LSP. Alzate graduated from the University of Illinois in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in general engineering (the sister program of industrial engineering), with a secondary field of manufacturing engineering. She also was a Division I tennis player for Illinois. Prior to her career at a.i. solutions, she interned at Walt Disney World in the merchandise planning area.