offered from the Southern California aerospace industry for
Mark Chun, PhD, Mike Williams, PhD, and Nelson Granados, PhD
As of January 2007, approximately 50 percent of the workforce at NASA-JPL was eligible for retirement, which may lead to a significant loss of knowledge. Most other organizations in the aerospace industry face a similar challenge. In light of this trend, aerospace firms are using information systems to capture, retain, and reuse knowledge—a practice referred to as Knowledge Management (KM).
Through knowledge management, organizations identify and leverage their collective knowledge to compete, including the creation, storage/retrieval, transfer, and application of knowledge. Increasingly, firms in many industries are taking advantage of advanced technologies such as database tools and web-based applications to effectively manage knowledge.
Managing Corporate Knowledge Assets
Knowledge assets are one of a firm’s most valuable assets. Knowledge is defined as information that is personalized to an individual or a collective group to support decision making. Knowledge assets include both explicit knowledge (e.g., documented concepts, procedures, laws, and routines) and tacit knowledge (e.g., experience, relationships, and know-how) that are context-bound and highly specific to a firm.
A firm’s knowledge assets evolve over time along rather unpredictable paths, and some can provide the firm with unique competitive advantages. Knowledge assets, however, are notoriously difficult to manage. Often the knowledge needed to solve a problem already exists within a firm but finding the knowledge is a challenge. Many employees have their own methods to manage knowledge: writing on a piece of paper, sketching on a notepad, or securely storing documents in filing cabinets within their offices. These primitive approaches result in countless knowledge silos that are not widely available throughout the firm. Moreover, documented procedures and best practices are often fragmented and poorly maintained.
Over the last several decades, corporations have leveraged IT to capture, store, and reuse knowledge. Technologies such as shared databases, web-based portals, and search engines are frequent staples of KM initiatives. The ultimate goal of these technologies is to introduce a standardized process to promote a more efficient and effective flow of information and knowledge throughout the firm. For example, firms use central databases to store customer data that is processed to develop sales and marketing analytics. The resulting knowledge is then transferred and shared across the organization with telecommunication technologies and communication tools such as email and video conferencing. Alternatively, retrieval tools such as query systems can be used by individuals to access these central databases directly.
Knowledge Management Challenges in the Southern California Aerospace Industry
Knowledge acquisition, sharing, and reuse are recurring and difficult problems in most industries. Within the aerospace industry, sharing knowledge within and across firms is particularly critical to success. Major aerospace projects such as the space shuttle and military aircraft leverage the expertise of numerous contractors with specialized knowledge assets. While these firms are, in some sense, competitors, they also must collaborate on multiple projects so that each subsystem seamlessly interacts with other relevant subsystems designed by other firms. Unfortunately, KM initiatives in the aerospace industry are challenged by three distinct forces: a continued reduction in resources, a knowledge-based reward culture, and a decreasing labor pool of qualified talent.
Aside from recent government spending in aerospace projects for the Iraq war, the trend over the past 20 years since the completion of the space shuttle has been a general decline in spending. With fewer resources at their disposal, aerospace corporations are asked to perform their jobs “better, faster, and cheaper.” Employees are expected to be more productive at a lower cost. One strategy to increase productivity is to focus on reusing existing knowledge assets. Yet the sensitivity and confidentiality of knowledge in the aerospace industry encourages employees to protect their specialized knowledge. Additionally, many scientists prefer to tackle problems on their own rather than to ask questions and learn from other’s experiences. Thus, there is a tendency to under-utilize lessons learned from other projects, departments, and competitors, and to continually “re-invent the wheel.”
Another challenge facing KM initiatives in the aerospace industry is that employees are often rewarded based on their specialized knowledge. For instance, knowledge in an area such as lightweight advanced materials provides an engineer with job security, access to new and exciting projects, and an established value-add to the firm. Consequently, the process of capturing knowledge for reuse across the enterprise may be perceived as a threat to job security. Therefore, many KM initiatives suffer from a constant tension between organizational goals to reuse knowledge and the tendency of individuals to hoard knowledge.
A final challenge is the decreasing supply of qualified scientists and engineers. The historical decline in government spending on space exploration, defense and other aerospace related areas contributed to a decline in the number of applicants to science-based terminal degree programs. Thus, the flow of new talent into many aerospace firms has been episodic rather than continuous. This has led to noticeable gaps in the workforce where a large percentage of scientists are either relatively inexperienced or almost ready to retire. New engineers and scientists often face the challenge of being thrust into leadership positions without adequate experience or mentoring from senior engineers.
As these three trends converge, executives in the aerospace industry recognize that the knowledge base that created the space shuttle, landed men on the moon, and designed the cruise missile may be lost as employees retire. In an attempt to capture and retain this knowledge, several aerospace firms in Southern California are exploring how information systems can aid their firms to better manage and retain critical knowledge assets.
D. Leonard and D. Kiron. "Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," Harvard Business School Case #9-603-062, (2002).
M. Alavi and D.E. Leidner. "Review: Knowledge Management and Knowledge Management Systems: Conceptual Foundations and Research Issues," MIS Quarterly, 25, no. 1 (2001/3): 107-136.
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