Changing Attitudes Toward Learning & Development

At the heart of the Future of Work is a changing attitude towards learning and development. In today’s modern work environment, workers have an increased responsibility for their own formal and experiential learning. Careers are no longer linear or “owned” by a corporation, and learning needs are increasingly diversified and personalized. By enabling and equipping employees to have a hand in their own learning and development, an organization can offer valuable trust to their workers that will be repaid in innovation, loyalty and productivity. Instead of prescribing an employee’s learning opportunities, the leading organizations are those that support relationships and environments that support and enable self-driven learning and development.

In fact, trends show that workers actively seek the jobs and communities which support their desire to learn. In the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Mara Swan write that it is a company’s responsibility to support employees’ requests to learn. Employees want “the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job” (Chamorro-Premuzic, Swan). NASA is committed to taking this fundamental need seriously and making it possible for employees – but at the same time allowing that development be self-directed.

Without a collaborative learning environment amongst employees, the profound discoveries and scientific advancements of NASA would not have been possible. In 2006, NASA took steps to improve this community even further. In a report released by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003), the Board concluded that NASA did “not demonstrate characteristics of a learning organization.” The two connected challenges, “integrating knowledge management and creating a learning organization,” were addressed at the Goddard Space Flight Center where a learning-loop was created to encourage continual learning. This Goddard system of learning included six major practices: Pause and Learn (PAL), Knowledge Sharing Workshops, Case Studies, Common Lessons Learned, GOLD Rules and The Road to Mission Success.

Some of these practices have been produced significant cultural changes in how learning happens within the Agency. Pause and Learn is a simple conversation among members of a team, typically conducted after a significant event or project milestone. Facilitated by a knowledgeable outsider who helps the team identify and capture knowledge gained at key project stages, the team then documents the essential elements of the conversation in the form of knowledge maps. The GOLD Rules (Goddard Open Learning Design) focus on applying proven, fundamental engineering design and practice to product and project management. They provide a sufficient common foundation without being hyper-specific about implementation, allowing for the needed flexibility for growth and innovation.

Upon implementing these practices, the Goddard Space Flight Center has progressed tremendously. This system has built a productive learning organization in the face of the Columbia report. However, NASA must continue to “reinforce learning behavior that enhances mission success across projects while investing in human capital strategies that assure sustainability in the future,” wrote Richard Day and Ed Rogers in a NASA publication. NASA is rooted in continual development, improvement and change, which has ultimately benefited the learning community. Culture is core to strategy, and these types of local practices have developed a learning culture at NASA that must precede more formal development.

NASA promotes growth-based careers through both formal and informal learning opportunities. Within these growth-based careers, talent exchanges such as team rotations and task forces can promote creativity and exchange of ideas. The ambition and capacity of employees to steadily learn and grow is not only beneficial to the individual, but to an individuals’ working teams and the organization as a whole.

For formal education such as classes, and workshops, NASA offers learning opportunities internally and provides limited financial support for educational experiences outside of the organization. Though the number of NASA employees receiving these educational stipends is one NASA hopes to grow, admittedly, budgetary constraints remain a challenge. Additionally federal law prohibits the organization, “from funding academic degrees for civil service personnel except through planned, systematic, and coordinated employee development programs that contribute significantly to meeting an individual training need.” NASA encourages employees to pursue formal educational ambitions as these are fundamental to the prosperity of both the employees and NASA.

Formal education isn’t the only (or even the best) avenue of development, though, especially as the nature and practice of work continues to change. NASA provides employees with the opportunity to learn informally or become a part of an experiential learning community.  Building a cohesive and diverse team is a great example of experiential learning in practice. NASA APPEL Knowledge Services has documented incredible stories across the Agency of lessons learned, project management case studies, and mission successes that were only possible because of intentional knowledge sharing. We learn by doing at NASA, and APPEL serves the vital role of making that learning available and effective for anyone who wants it. Mentoring programs build on that learning, giving employees relationships where they can ask questions and process ideas and thoughts outside of their normal teams.

The whole NASA team is constantly growing and adapting to the needs of the industry and the frontiers we are exploring through our the ever-changing, dynamic workforce. In order to create this collaborative learning environment, NASA continues to explore new solutions to further their formal education, improving team diversity and dynamics, and renovating physical spaces to promote further creativity. At the same time, employees are being encouraged to pursue development themselves, not waiting on NASA to prescribe or direct, but engaging their own interests and mentors, often cross-disciplinary and cross-silo. Learning and development cannot flourish from the top-down, and must be owned as the responsibility of every employee, not “for NASA” but “for their own curiosity and growth and interest.” It’s that kind of curiosity and daring that fuels the exploration that only NASA can do – and that creates the kind of people that NASA is so well-known for.

About the Authors

Neely Yates | Neely is a Content Hacker Intern at NASA. She studies International Political Economy and Computer Science at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. Neely is passionate about making STEM a more inclusive field. She has interned for Congressmen and local officials to advocate for her ideas. Neely also loves coding and learning languages. Whether she is talking to a human or computer, she likes to learn how to communicate in new, creative ways.

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).