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What Digital Transformation Means at NASA (Video)

Video produced by Steve Nathans-Kelly

Knowledge management and digital transformation share common ground. Both maintain an interest in driving mission success, maximizing information access, and leveraging digital technologies to enhance efficiency and effectiveness. As NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate explores emerging digital capabilities, it is applying KM principles to strengthen its approach. Bringing digital transformation to knowledge management practices also helps NASA to reinvent antiquated processes and take advantage of new opportunities.

At KMWorld 2019, Tiffany L. Smith, , chief knowledge officer, NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, identified areas that are complementary between knowledge management and digital transformation, highlighted ways KM practitioners can contribute to digital transformation activities in any organization, and provided some examples from NASA Aeronautics’ experience in both in a session, titled "Digital Transformation & KM In Partnership."

Defining digital transformation

When thinking about digital transformation, said Smith, it is helpful to start by defining what you mean. "And at NASA we use a really broad scope when we describe digital transformation. So first, if you haven't talked about this much before, we experience digital transformation every time that we withdraw money from an ATM, we ask a digital assistant about the weather, we listen to music on our smartphone. That's all kind of from that provenance."

During the past decade, she said, day-to-day tasks have been revolutionized by these ideas. "NASA's really been broadly pursuing those," she said. "That's how we use a really big umbrella to describe what digital transformation looks like. Every time we digitize or streamline a paper process, use new collaboration tools, we connect previously silo'd data, we can put that in the digital transformation bucket when we start to think about it that way."


However, until recently, NASA didn't have a broad umbrella agency-level coordination for it. "We had lots of excellent work happening in many distributed places. And so what began in 2017 and then turned into sort of a strategic tiger team last year, which is something that I was on, and I'll talk about a little bit more, was the decision to create an agency digital transformation strategy. So that product, the digital transformation strategy for the agency, was proved in spring of this year and it's led by our Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Office of the Chief Technologist. I don't work for either of those folks directly. I do coordinate very, very closely with them in terms of kind of what we're doing with digital transformation and I am the mission, one of the mission directorate representatives to that central team."

Digital transformation, has been framed as a catalyst, said Smith. It is not necessarily just one project; it is a thing that kind of inspires work and ties it together. 

Creating a central repository

"My role, as I mentioned, is the representative for our mission directorate to that agency team. And I also then put out my hand and led the literature review that we did and administrative lessons learned for our team, which is just a completely natural fit for a knowledge management person, I think. When you start to hear, 'Oh, we need to, like, sort of review literature and make sense of it,' it's just like yeah, I should be there. I can help that."

Smith continued, "Have any of you ever been on a team where every once in a while, possibly multiple times a week, people will send an email to 50 or 60 people and say, 'Look at this great article I found!' And everyone has the best intention of reading it and reviewing it and making sense of it and you never actually find the time. So that's what our problem was, too. And what we kind of started to do initially with this literature, this sense of we should really do a deeper study of what's going on in kind of the industry space, was we started, we started by thinking, 'Okay, let's capture it all, kind of in a central repository so everyone has access to that information and it's not just an email, just a really good first step.' Kind of sorted it a little bit, we started to make sense of it around that area."

The next realization, said Smith, ws that they had not really analyzed it. "We hadn't thought about how all these things come together in one place. And so what I volunteered to take on and was able to do in close coordination with one of our co-chairs for the digital transformation work was enlist the help of volunteer, or I shouldn't say volunteer, Virtual Student Federal Service eInterns."

This is a program that Smith said she  helped to stand up 10 years ago when she was at the State Department, but it is open to all federal agencies so they can get the help of virtual interns from any U.S. college or university up to about 10 hours a week to work on substantive projects that they don't have to be on-site for.

Getting results

"It's a perfect thing for literature review," said Smith. "If you're a federal agency, I encourage you to take a look at it as a program. So we reached out to the program managers. They were incredibly helpful in helping us identify some people who were fantastic partners for us. And what they did was they looked at five or six dozen articles, peer-reviewed articles, industry articles, other kinds of media. They sorted them, categorized them, added abstracts and highlights and pulled lots and lots of things together. And they sort of brought back recommendations from all of the substantive literature around digital transformation and said: 'These are the common threads.'"

In addition to kind of the six or seven kind of areas that they were most focusing on in digital transformation, there were three key recommendations. "And I think of these as kind of the why, the what and the how for digital transformation on an organizational level. So, and if you look at them, if you think the first is kind of why you do this, to retain your competitive advantages, realize full efficiency, what is kind of the align your roadmap with the priorities of leadership and then how, cultivate your culture through continuous improvement. Those sound a lot like knowledge management to me. And so what we kind of came to was, these can be really, really complementary areas. They might not always be one-to-one, but there's lots of places where we're really speaking towards the same goals so if we can try where we can to try to line them up and make sure they're in conversation with each other throughout, that could be really helpful to us."

Videos of KMWorld 2019 awards presentations, keynotes, and many sessions can be found here.

Many speakers at KMWorld 2019 have also made their presentations available at www.kmworld.com/Conference/2019/Presentations.aspx.

KMWorld 2020 is Going Virtual: NOVEMBER 16-20, 2020!


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