Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Some thoughts concerning NASA’s Team B effect – on maintaining strength through transitions – 1

Posted in in the News, outsourcing and globalization, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on July 21, 2011

This is a posting about business continuity and the preservation of skills and capacity in the face of shifting needs and market demands.

• On the one hand, businesses face very genuine costs, including both one time expenses and ongoing operating expenses from maintenance of workforce, equipment and working space to house them. This can be very expensive, and a failure to effectively utilize all of this resource base in the immediate here and now can significantly reduce business effectiveness and capacity to hold market share.
• On the other hand, resources that are let go for lack of need right now or in the immediate future, can be very difficult to replace and rebuild when needed again, with crucial expertise and experience gone and no longer available to cite just some of the key personnel issues.

I am writing this posting now, at least in part because I find myself facing such a profound example of what can happen when for whatever reason, an organization is unable to find and achieve an effective balance between what is maintained for continuity of capability, and what is trimmed down on for current business needs and to maintain liquidity and fiscal efficiency. My working example here, as the title of this posting indicates, comes from the United Stated National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA is an agency of the Executive Branch of the US Federal Government, responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautical and aerospace research related to that. It is also a high-profile agency that has built up tremendous levels of resources for carrying out major projects including but not limited to:

• The Mercury Project space missions,
• The Apollo Program missions and moon landings,
• US participation in the development, deployment and running of space stations (e.g. see Skylab and the International Space Station), and
• The now concluding space shuttle program.

And as soon as these projects and programs were completed, funding and support for NASA has dropped off, and they found themselves laying off staff and cutting budgets for what was left. Their best trained and most experienced staff members – their Team A personnel were best able to find work calling for their particular abilities in the private sector so they left first, and more fully. This does not mean the people left on were in any way incompetent but their remaining predominantly Team B personnel were not the ones who had led these now finished programs to success.

People left, and so did institutional knowledge and expertise. And this loss went well beyond just key personnel loss per se. The Saturn V rocket was the main launch vehicle for both the Apollo and Skylab projects but when the teams being assembled for the International Space Station tried doing their background research on vetted technology from earlier programs, they quickly found that no one had a complete set of blueprints describing how a Saturn V was configured in detail, or built. They had a lot of pieces of the puzzle but no complete blueprint rendering of the entire thing. With information technology changes, and information maintenance discontinuities and hard copy losses, this hard won and expensively gained knowledge was now to a significant degree gone.

And I write this posting now, because with the launch of space shuttle Atlantis as the 135th and last scheduled program launch, NASA is again facing this same destructive scaling back from loss of support. And once again they will be left with more of a caretaker Team B in place. And even leading up to that launch, a number of key Team A personnel were already looking and planning for post-shuttle program and post-NASA careers.

• How do you find a balance between effective maintenance of capabilities with the long term options that would help you keep, vying for priority in the face of short term fiscal pressures that would dictate perhaps even a severe cutting back to what is needed now, and just that?

And I find myself at this point in this posting facing the exact same underlying issues that a business would face that is considering outsourcing production. Do I keep my production lines open here, and even if that means accepting higher costs per unit produced, or do I ship production to a country or region with lower operating cost potential? The story cited here in this posting becomes relevant there because lower cost labor may not carry with it the same skills, and particularly where that might be needed for developing the business to a next stage for products and services offered.

I am going to continue this posting with a part 2 and then add in my 4th installment in my developing series: Outsourcing as a Business Paradigm (see Outsourcing and Globalization, postings 4-6), adding the issue of skills and even core capabilities and knowledge management to that topic.

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