Environment and Culture

In addition to the four meta forces previously discussed, we also considered environmental and cultural contexts that influence NASA in the Future of Work study. Environmental factors include changing industry dynamics, such as the rise of the private space industry, as well as shifting political priorities and shrinking budgets. We define culture as “the underlying beliefs, artifacts, assumptions, values, and ways of interacting that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of the organization.” Or another way of saying it, culture is “what most of the people do most of the time.” Each plays a crucial role in shaping NASA’s mission, strategy, and behaviors within an organization, and are explored below in serving as the foundation and fabric for our Future of Work study.

From the Uberization of taxis to the disruption of the retail industry by Amazon, the technology-moderated environment in which NASA now operates is more unpredictable than ever before. The many historic accomplishments along the way, from landing on the moon to sending rovers to Mars, are the result of navigating political pressures, tight deadlines and a need to effectively and efficiently steward the nation’s resources. Once the uncontested leader in an international space race, NASA is now challenged to work with industry and international partners on increasingly complex missions. The deregulation of the space sector is redefining how Americans access and engage with space. This turbulence in the environmental backdrop of the aerospace industry marks the start of a new space economy and provides NASA new uncharted opportunities.

It’s not just the external factors that will influence the way forward; internal organizational culture has a dramatic effect as well. The values that comprise the NASA culture—safety, integrity, teamwork, and excellence— have contributed to the many successes. NASA is known as a world-class institution routinely defining the cutting edge of science, aeronautics, and space exploration, and has a history of employing the very best talent, long recognized as a Best Place to Work in the Federal Government; a title it has held for the last 6 years. However, defining the culture at NASA is much harder than just listing its four state values. In fact, NASA has multiple micro-cultures that are the result of decentralized workforce that is dispersed across many NASA Space and Research Centers. This allows NASA to remain flexible and distribute its work effectively, but can lead to counterproductive habits, actions, and mental frameworks.

NASA is an enormous organization with more than 18,000 civil servant employees and many more contractors so understanding how the external environment and internal culture contributes to the Future of Work can be difficult. The backdrop environment and culture is not stagnant. In fact, it’s always changing and will continue to evolve. Being able understand is critical to remain competitive in the future. It’s only going to become more important from here.

About the Authors:

Nick Skytland | Nick has pioneered new ways of doing business in both government and industry for nearly two decades. He leads the Future of Work initiative at NASA and is the Agency Talent and Technology Strategist in the Talent Strategy and Engagement Division within the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO).

Ali Llewellyn | Ali has two decades of cross-sector experience in growing effective teams and engaged communities. A large-scale international project manager for many years, Ali envisions, trains and equips large and small teams to accomplish focused missions.