The Problem in Depth
In 1969, NASA sent the first man to the moon. In 1990, it launched the Hubble Telescope. Now, NASA has embarked on an adventure into social networking with NASAsphere, an online social network for NASA employees.
With a variety of employees such as engineers, computer programmers, personnel specialists, accountants, writers, and maintenance workers spread across the U.S. in 10 different field centers, NASA needed to find a way to unite its workers and provide them with a common workspace where they could easily correspond and stay up-to-date on important information.
In April 2008, it was decided by the NASA Strategic Management Council (SMC) that center directors would hold cross-generational discussions to explore questions such as how the SMC could enhance communication and collaboration between NASA centers and across generations and how it could provide the NASA workers with new ideas, methodologies, and technologies. As a result of these meetings, it was recommended that the use of new communication tools such as blogs and wikis in the NASA environment be further investigated.
NASA quickly began brainstorming, settling on the idea of implementing a social networking tool: “An enterprise-class online social network, when implemented in the NASA environment, would allow NASA knowledge workers to exchange, capture, and create a collective intelligence for NASA that is reusable agency-wide by all knowledge workers. NASA can open up information bottlenecks and speed up the time it takes to get information to the right people to make [an] informed decision,” according to a NASA published case study titled “Findings From the NASAsphere Pilot.”
Though all signs pointed to a social network as the answer to NASA’s communication problems, questions still lingered about whether or not a social networking tool would be fully embraced and utilized by employees given the broad generational spectrum within NASA’s workforce.
When Socialcast CEO Tim Young met with a CSC contractor working for NASA at the 2007 KMWorld & Intranets conference, NASA was already looking for a way to facilitate collaboration in its various centers. “NASA had actively been seeking ways of integrating its various generations of workers together, as well as ways of transferring knowledge across boundaries,” says Young.
To test the social networking waters, NASA decided to try out a 60-day social networking pilot that would be developed and implemented by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Knowledge Architecture and Advanced Technologies team and powered by Socialcast. According to NASA’s case study, Socialcast was chosen because it “is a very strong proponent of integrating existing content. Socialcast has a host of web services available and utilizes open APIs and RSS feeds to pull in content for other social media sites.”
In May 2008, with Socialcast’s help, NASAsphere was in motion. “We were able to use our standard tool with some unique details to fit their needs for the pilot,” explains Young. Similar to popular social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, the standard Socialcast tool boasts features such as a network activity stream, user profiles, status updates, and direct messaging. While users can choose who they are related to in their network, the company activity stream functions as a “voyeuristic tool to discover new people and explore,” says Young. With Socialcast, users can also bookmark pages from other social media sites such as blogs, Delicious, Google Reader, and LinkedIn.
During the NASAsphere pilot, participants were able to post questions and ideas to the network in order to receive feedback from colleagues. For example, an engineering trainee in the IT Mission Support Group at the Kennedy Space Center posted a question regarding where to find critical information for a physics-based simulation of the lunar surface and quickly received responses from three different center locations. Taking full advantage of Socialcast’s ability to pull content from other media sites, some employees connected their Twitter accounts to NASAsphere and used it to Tweet about their work. Groups were created to connect members working on specific projects.
NASAsphere was also used as a means of gauging how helpful social networking tools are to employees. Questions such as “What are your thoughts on the adoption of social networking in NASA? Is it just for Gen Yers, or can us older folks do it too?” were posted to better understand where NASAsphere participants were coming from. Users were also provided with open-ended textboxes to tag their own keywords for easier searching later and to determine what kind of data is the most sought-after by NASA employees.
Since Socialcast was able to use its standard tool for NASAsphere, implementation was straightforward. As Young explains, “We were able to get [NASAsphere] up and running very quickly. It took a few weeks to develop our guidelines for new users and an education program. Overall it was a smooth process.” Throughout the pilot, Socialcast provided constant support for users. According to the NASA case
study, “On the first day of the pilot, the vendor provided technical support to participants. Four WebEx meetings, one per week, were set up on various topics related to how to use the features of NASAsphere. The meetings were recorded for later reuse.”
The only challenge that arose for Socialcast during the pilot was establishing the program’s value in a short amount of time. “The main issue we faced was that as a pilot program, we only had 60 days to establish the usefulness of NASAsphere,” explains Young. Essentially, Socialcast realized that employees might not invest as much time and effort into the test project because “there was no guarantee of an extension of the program. It’s hard to take part in something fully when you know it’s not going to last forever,” he says. However, by the end of the 60-day process, NASAsphere had proven its worth.
At the beginning of the 60-day pilot, NASAsphere had 78 active accounts. By the end there were 295 participants. Throughout the pilot, NASAsphere participants invited 398 colleagues from different centers with a 55% acceptance rate.
An obvious increase in user numbers was just the tip of the iceberg. When the NASAsphere pilot team analyzed the remaining participation data, they discovered even more positive results from the pilot. When asked, “What do you recommend should happen with NASAsphere?” 52% of users recommend implementation for civil servants and contractors. Additionally, 38% of users said they would read NASAsphere daily, and 36% said they would read it weekly.
One of the more prominent concerns regarding NASAsphere was whether or not it would be used by everyone at NASA given the diversity in employee age. “Based on the response data from the generational-related questions, a general assertion can be made that many of the NASAsphere participants believe that social networking is not bound by age,” according to the case study.
In general, most participants found NASAsphere very helpful, citing that it created a sense of community by allowing them to connect with people in other centers and to enhance the connections they already had. The only recommended improvements to NASAsphere were to create an advanced search, devise a way to archive old questions and ideas, and provide users with the ability to manage their own user invitations.
After analyzing all the feedback from NASAsphere users, the pilot team stated that it “recommends that NASAsphere be implemented as an ‘official’ employee social networking and communication tool. Statements and endorsements made by participants indicate that an implementation would be supported and used by NASA knowledge workers to ask for and share knowledge to get their job done.”
From the results NASA reported in its 60-day NASAsphere pilot, a social network can successfully provide employees with an alternate means of communication, no matter the distance between them. As many NASAsphere users discovered, connecting with colleagues through new technological means can not only be rewarding socially but also very useful in regard to completing the mission at hand.