Case | HBS Case Collection | September 2002 (Revised October 2002)

Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

by Dorothy A. Leonard and David Kiron

Abstract

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) faces a serious loss of knowledge--both because of the "faster, better, cheaper" mandate for Mars missions and from the retirement of key personnel. An extensive knowledge management system for NASA/JPL includes formal knowledge-capture mechanisms such as Web pages and digitized manuals and such informal ones as storytelling. The former are much easier to get funded and to implement than the latter, but chief knowledge architect Jeanne Holm is concerned that technology cannot solve some of the most difficult issues she faces. This case focuses more on managing the tacit knowledge held in the heads of scientists and experienced project managers than on the information technology that Holm has put in place. The switch from expensive but infrequent Mars missions to 2 missions every 26 months propelled a number of junior managers into positions of responsibility and decision making for which they had inadequate experience. In the face of increasingly tight budgets, Holm must decide what kinds of knowledge management initiatives to back--and how to encourage the cultural change that is needed in the organization.

Keywords: Knowledge Management; Knowledge Dissemination; Leadership Development; Internet; Risk and Uncertainty; Organizational Culture; Retirement; Human Resources; Human Capital;

Citation:

Leonard, Dorothy A., and David Kiron. "Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)." Harvard Business School Case 603-062, September 2002. (Revised October 2002.)