The APQC Blog

Unlearning: NASA Meets SpaceX

As part of my quest to understand how people become experts more quickly in complex scientific and technical disciplines, I interviewed Edward J. Hoffman, chief knowledge officer (CKO) at NASA. This is the second of two blogs on my conversation with Ed. You can check out the first one and learn more about Ed's role here.

A few years back, Ed Hoffman co-authored a book with Alexander Laufner called Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. A key theme of the book is that success can breed caution and fear of failure. Unlearning is harder than learning: the human brain evolved to remember things that promote survival, not forget them. Yet that’s exactly what we need to do when times change and the old solutions don’t work anymore: let go, relearn, and adapt. I asked Ed how they unlearn at NASA and how the CKO and knowledge management organization can help. 

Ed: One of the things we see in organizations is that people develop tremendous expertise and competence. As time goes by and those competencies are not needed, they sometimes slow us down in terms of how we move ahead. So one of the key things is: How does an organization unlearn what it believes to be true? 


Unlearning has been essential for the “new NASA” especially when it partners with commercial organizations. SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s startups, is building rockets for NASA. Can you imagine the cultural differences between SpaceX (which might be a lot like NASA was in its early years) and a risk-averse, financially strapped organization like NASA?

Ed: A typical mission involves dozens and dozens of small and large organizations as part of a complex supply chain. There’s a lot of potential complexity and problems, so we need the ability to adapt with different organizations and with people who have different cultures, different terms, and the same terms that mean different things. In one instance, we had a representative from SpaceX and one from NASA talking about different approaches. They both can reinforce each other, but there has to be heavy collaboration and dialogue.

The most exciting part about knowledge in the 21st century is that the complexity comes from the diversity of people, teams, and organizations having to work together. If you work together effectively—with respect, inclusiveness, and dialogue—you’re much more likely to succeed. If you work in much more traditional approach of hierarchy and “right or wrong,” you’re going to fail.

In addition to reinforcing those skills, the knowledge management group at NASA helps leadership determine what 5 percent of knowledge and lessons learned are critical for the new NASA.

Ed: I mentioned before that we get recommendations and ideas from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. Last May, one of their questions was, “How do you formally identify NASA’s critical knowledge and make sure it’s within your standards, policies, and the learning platform you use to prepare your people?”

To figure out what was truly critical, I scheduled interviews with leaders asked them: “Can you identify the top 5 percent of broadly applicable knowledge and lessons that the entire work force should be aware of?” They struggled at first, but then discussions really started and we ended up with hundreds of different comments. The comments factored into four areas:

  1. people—the culture dimensions of NASA and how we work together,
  2. processes—the ways we do what we do and whether they are up to date or not,
  3. technical expertise—expertise in the different disciplines and occupations critical for success, and
  4. the knowledge equation—making sure people approach knowledge (e.g., case studies, after-action reviews, communities of practice) in a capable and professional way.

NASA’s KM strategy and structure support these elements.We set up a federated model for knowledge services, and our strategy focuses on four broad areas:

  1. Making sure folks can find the critical knowledge they’re seeking—because access to the right information could make the difference between success and failure.
  2. Facilitating opportunities for improved collaboration and communication—I believe the most important aspect of effective programs, projects, and leadership is collaboration and communication (and a culture that makes that kind of sharing expected and applied).
  3. Identifying best practices—we establish best practices from inside NASA as well as externally from industries, partners, universities, and APQC.
  4. Improving maturity—we measure and aim to get better at what we’re doing today so we’re better for tomorrow.

To read more from my interview with Ed, go here: Big Thinkers, Big Ideas: Edward J. Hoffman

You can also check out the rest of my Big Thinkers, Big Ideas interviews on APQC’s Knowledge Base.

APQC members who want to learn more about what KM at NASA is all about can go here:

Subscribe to the Big Thinkers, Big Ideas podcast on Itunes or on APQCPodcasts on Podbean.

You can connect with me on Twitter @odell_carla