Transferring Knowledge Between Projects at NASA JPL

Publication
Harvard Business School Case Publishing

Please Note:
This case was updated in July 2017. The new version supersedes and replaces the original (published in September 2016).

Citation

Leonard, D.A., & Myers, C.G. (2016, September; Revised 2017, July). Transferring knowledge between projects at NASA JPL (A). HBS Case No. 917-404. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Supplemental Case:
Leonard, D.A., & Myers, C.G. (2016, September; Revised 2017, July). Transferring knowledge between projects at NASA JPL (B). HBS Supplement No. 917-405. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Teaching Note:
Leonard, D.A., & Myers, C.G. (2016, September; Revised 2017, July). Transferring knowledge between projects at NASA JPL (A) and (B). HBS Teaching Note No. 917-406. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Summary

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research institution within NASA, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has played a large role in many space and planetary explorations, particularly to the planet Mars. As a project-based organization, JPL has many opportunities to learn between successive missions, but there are many cultural, structural and incentive-based challenges to the development and exchange of experience-based knowledge.

The main case decision point focuses on one such challenge in particular: how to instill in junior engineers the practice-based experience of their seniors. Jennifer Trosper, project manager for the Mars 2020 mission, is trying to decide whether or not to seek funding for a hands-on training program building miniature, educational versions of a Mars surface vehicle. However, the cases address a number of other managerial decisions, such as determining the balance between innovation and replication of prior solutions, given that Trosper has been charged with re-using engineering designs from prior projects, but for an expanded mission. The cases also explore generic knowledge-transfer issues faced by JPL’s Chief Knowledge Officer, David Oberhettinger, such as the role of documentation, uses of formal “lessons learned,” and how best to use the scarce time of the most valuable JPL engineers.