Saturday, October 01, 2016

USAID and NASA - A Tentative Comparison of Industry Trends and Current Knowledge Management Challenges

The table below doesn't claim to be a thorough comparison of USAID and NASA.  It's a quick glimpse at key characteristics that impact current knowledge management challenges, inspired by the SID - Future of AID session earlier this week and about 10 years of practical experience in both of these worlds.

This deserves much more reflection and more than a blog post and table.   It could be a full book, but I can't answer the "SO WHAT?" question.  I keep coming up with new mini-insights that need to be connected somehow to build the bigger puzzle. All I'm really saying is that the two agencies are not that different and key knowledge management challenges are common across industries even if NASA is perceived as being well ahead of USAID from a Knowledge Management perspective.

US Government Agency / Industry
USAID / International Development
NASA / Aerospace
Global Economic Development, Poverty Reduction
Science & Exploration
Programs and Activities implemented to achieve the goal
Broad commitment to SDGs, Country strategies, sector-specific programs, individual projects
High-level strategies in each key space science domains (astrophysics, heliophysics, earth science, etc..); programs and individual missions
Implementation Models
Public private partnerships; contracts and grants with implementing non-profits and for-profit private sector organizations

International collaboration: working within the United Nations system
Increased emphasis on private sector involvement; continued partnerships with industry as contractors and academia as partners/contractors; partnerships with other countries’ space programs

International collaboration: Space Station
Changes in the industry
New entrants:
·        Countries like China and India, operating under different models, different rules.
·        Private sector investors
·        Large individual donors and corporate donors
New entrants:
·        Countries with new space ambitions
·        Private sector taking over roles previously owned by government (transport to Space Station, launch services, etc…)
 Rapidly changing global economic and political environment; need to explore new implementation models.  NEED TO ADAPT FASTER, THEREFORE LEARN FASTER.
Rapidly changing technological innovation and implementation models. NEED TO ADAPT FAST, THEREFORE LEARN FASTER.
Key differences
Measuring success (‘IMPACT’) is a perennial challenge.  Scaling and replicability become difficult because there isn’t enough attention paid to “HOW” the activity was made to be successful.  Little emphasis on understanding the complex set of factors leading to success.  (See previous post)

Very little rigor in program and project implementation. (subjective judgment here, based on personal experience/perception)

What’s needed: Adaptive management, CRITICAL THINKING
Measuring success has never been an issue.  Success and failure are very clear and visible.  Identifying technical failures is a challenge when it happens on orbit, but the biggest challenge is identifying AND CORRECTING organizational failures.

High degree of rigor in project management (increasing rigor on cost and schedule dimensions), sometimes to the point of being a serious burden and impeding innovation.

What’s needed: Tailored application of project management “requirements”, CRITICAL THINKING
Knowledge Management Challenges
·        High turnover, shuffling around the same top contractors, same group of consultants (small world)
·        High barriers to entry (perhaps that’s changing with the emergence of new actors)
·        Generalists vs. specialists and the need for a holistic approach to problem solving, multi-disciplinary approach.
·        North-South discourse/issue, reinforcing impact of information technology
·        Absorptive capacity, perceived weakness of local knowledge capture/knowledge transfer.
Confusion around M&E, Knowledge Management and communications/PR resulting from the incentives structure (see previous blog post). 

DIFFICULTY IDENTIFYING REAL LESSONS, SPECIFYING “SUCCESS FACTORS”, INCLUDING CONTEXTUAL FACTORS.  NEED TO LEARN TO ADAPT AND INNOVATE.   Learning from flawed data on impact studies is… flawed.  Need to come up with something much more forward looking, agile and adaptive.
·        Retiring, aging workforce with critical experience-based knowledge is leaving
·        New entrants/partners are not using tested/proven approaches, steep learning curve, yet that’s how they can take risks and innovate
·        Need for insights from other fields, increased openness to insights from non-technical fields
·        Perennial challenge of cross-project knowledge transfer (“we are unique” mentality) and knowledge exchange across organizational boundaries.

This was a case where an insight map didn't seem to fit the purpose, yet I bet it would help me to connect the dots a little better. 

I had previously written about the two organizations:  Foreign Assistance Revitilization and Accountability Act of 2009, August 11, 2009.  A great deal of USAID's current focus on Monitoring, Evaluation, Knowledge Management and the CLA (Collaborating, Learning and Adapting) model emerged out of that 2009 legislation.  

See also "Defining Success and Failure: Managing Risk", July 29, 2009.

12/17/2016 - Addendum - There are many interesting and related insights in Matthew Syed's Black Box Thinking, which investigates how certain industries are much better (more thorough) at learning from their mistakes than others.