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The Smart Mission - Book Review

1 March 2024

Dr. Moria Levy

"The Smart Mission: NASA's Lessons for Managing Knowledge, People, and Projects" (2022) by Edward Hoffman, Mathew Kohut, and Laurence Prusak caught my attention for multiple reasons:

  1. It places a significant emphasis on knowledge management.

  2. It revolves around the context of NASA.

  3. It is likely the final literary work authored by Larry Prusak before his passing.

The book sheds light on NASA's endeavors in knowledge management, particularly in the aftermath of the shuttle disasters (Challenger, Colombia), providing valuable insights applicable to other knowledge-centric and project-focused organizations.

Key themes explored within the book encompass:

  • Knowledge

  • Learning

  • Storytelling

  • Organizational culture

  • Work teams

  • Global collaboration across organizations and cultures

The authors present a comprehensive perspective with Hoffman as NASA's inaugural knowledge director and the others serving as his advisors. Despite its 2022 publication date, the book delves into an earlier era of NASA's history. The authors enrich the narrative by integrating Prusak's experiences at IBM and analyzing emerging trends in various organizations. The following summary encapsulates the main messages, but for a more profound understanding of the examples and stories, it is recommended to read the entire book.


Work Knowledge

In the context of this book, "work knowledge" is delineated as the understanding of work methods and daily activities that facilitate the execution of both straightforward and intricate tasks.

Key characteristics of work knowledge encompass:

  • Integrating overt and covert knowledge, emphasizing both knowing what and knowing how.

  • The acquisition of knowledge necessitates an investment of time and experience.

  • Knowledge may not always be apparent when observing products or work outputs from an external perspective.

  • Knowledge is inherently social; while individual contributions hold value, the collective worth of a group is significantly greater.

  • Work knowledge seamlessly integrates into individuals, processes, and routines.

Knowledge Management

Everyday knowledge management activities within organizations involve developing, maintaining, and transferring or disseminating knowledge.

  • Knowledge Development: This entails introducing knowledge into the organization, subjecting it to testing, and integrating it into the operational knowledge base.

    - Example: Organizational learning.

  • Knowledge Retention: This relates to internal learning processes that ensure employees within the organization possess the required knowledge.

    - Example: Tutorials.

  • Knowledge Transfer and Dissemination: This includes intentional knowledge sharing among individuals or groups, recognizing that this process is more complex than anticipated.

    - Examples: Documentation, knowledge extraction, and sharing lessons via email.

Supporting tools for facilitating knowledge transfer and dissemination include establishing social infrastructures that provide a secure environment for sharing, dedicating physical spaces for knowledge exchange, and organizing conferences and workshops as platforms for encounters. An alternative approach involves relocating employees between different places and positions.

While all these activities are crucial for any organization, the specific value and time investment required may vary based on the nature of the company's services and products. The approach to knowledge governance will also differ from one organization to another. NASA, for instance, adopted a federative model, decentralizing certain aspects while placing significant value on knowledge sharing between its units.

Critical Knowledge

Given the impracticality of managing all knowledge comprehensively, organizations must focus on identifying, locating, and assessing the value and currency of critical knowledge that should be readily accessible. The key lies in maintaining a dynamic understanding of the evolving knowledge needs within the organization. NASA introduced the term "Mission Critical Knowledge" to pinpoint such crucial information across its ten centers. The assessment of critical knowledge occurs at the group level (centers, units, teams) through a series of questions addressing themes such as what knowledge contributes to current success and what additional knowledge is required yet unknown.

Acknowledging the challenges in managing critical knowledge is crucial, as it defies the conventional precision seen in economic management. The difficulty extends to estimating the costs associated with managing it, sharing inputs, and, more significantly, assessing its value, which lacks quantifiability or a universally agreed-upon unit of measurement. Instead, it is considered a means rather than an end.

Tips for effectively working with knowledge include:

  • Reframing knowledge as social rather than personal.

  • Recognizing that knowledge is not a given, information, or wisdom but a means of understanding a subject that enables actionable insights, primarily in the formats of "know-what" and "know-how."

  • Acknowledging the temporary nature of knowledge, it is not eternal.

  • Understanding that knowledge can be observed and comprehended but not entirely captured, it inherently remains elusive.

  • Recognizing that the process of knowledge learning is resource-intensive and demands substantial investment.

  • Acknowledging that people, ideas, and things form the core of our assets, with a growing emphasis on the importance of ideas in the contemporary world.

  • Realizing that experience does not automatically translate into knowledge; it must be framed, shared, and actively utilized.

  • Emphasizing that the proper handling of knowledge necessitates interdisciplinary understanding.

Promoting a Knowledge Management Solution – Additional Recommendations

  1. Selection of Engaged Unit/Field: Choose a unit or field where knowledge management will be actively implemented. Ensure that the chosen unit directly impacts business outputs or strategy.

  2. Identification of Critical Knowledge: Prioritize identifying critical knowledge within the selected unit or field. Recognize the essential information that significantly influences business outcomes.

  3. Adoption of a Suitable Governance Model: Identify and implement a governance model that aligns with the nature of knowledge management. Ensure that the selected model is well-suited to facilitate effective knowledge governance.

  4. Engagement and Mobilization of Managers: Actively involve and mobilize managers at all relevant levels, aligning them with knowledge management. Channel their support and commitment to the idea, emphasizing its importance throughout the organization.


Learning is a complex process; individuals often resist changes in work methodologies and mindsets and acquire new skills.

The authors assert that a significant portion of contemporary learning occurs through peer-to-peer interactions on the job. Additionally, they contend that most formal training within organizations is frequently deemed irrelevant, with critical relevance being an exception rather than the norm.

The authors categorize learning into organizational, team, and individual levels.

Organizational Learning

Objective: Enhance performance and foster innovation

Example: Lessons Learned

Key Success Tools:

  • Knowledge Manager

  • Management Support

  • Psychological Confidence for Employee Admission of Mistakes and Learning

  • Investment in Learning Infrastructures (integration, resources, time, place, knowledge networks)

  • Organizational Perspective: Move beyond examining individual unit needs and consider the organization as a whole.

  • Infrastructure of Connections between Learners: Establish a foundation for successful learning through interconnections among learners.

  • Iterative Experience as a Way of Working

  • Visibility: Communicate learning sessions transparently to emphasize the organization's commitment.

  • Recognition and Appreciation for Learners

  • Ongoing Effort: Know when to revise or cancel previous learning, avoiding unwavering adherence to outdated knowledge.

Team Learning

Objective: Achieve Project Success

Example: Project Brainstorming Session

Key Success Tools:

  • Relevance and Importance of Projects: Ensure that projects undertaken are genuinely relevant and significant.

  • Focus on Substance Issues: Encourage discussions that delve into substantive matters.

  • Culture of Challenging the Status Quo: Foster an environment that permits and values questioning established norms.

  • Allocation of Time and Space for Learning Sessions: Provide dedicated time and space for learning sessions; for geographically distributed teams, leverage enabling technologies.

  • Promotion of Discussion and Learning in Second-Order Loops: Encourage active participation and learning even in secondary project feedback and discussion levels.

In-Person Learning

Objective: Enhance skills, performance, and confidence

Example: Collaborating on a different project or joining another team for a designated period

Tools for Success:

  • Personal development across four dimensions: competence, access, task, and partnerships.

  • Learning from experience with a focus on self-awareness and humility.

  • Investment in project management skills is a gateway to extensive and ongoing learning opportunities.

Promoting a Learning Solution – Additional Recommendations

  1. Elevate leaders into roles as teachers and learning instructors.

  2. Foster reflective leadership.

  3. Approach training as a dialogue rather than a one-way lecture.

  4. Designate dedicated time and space for learning.

  5. Facilitate learning through small group gatherings.

  6. Position learning not as an overhead but as a crucial and progressive matter.

  7. Incorporate a variety of learning stimuli.


The concept of storytelling emerged at NASA following the Challenger disaster, during which the organization came under intense scrutiny. In the public's perception, NASA transitioned from an elite institution to another bureaucratic public organization. The authors emphasize that immediate learning did not take place. Still, it paved the way for learning processes, with storytelling eventually evolving as a central theme for sharing knowledge and lessons. The initiative faced initial challenges and gained traction after implementing strategic branding and investment efforts.

The Advantages of Integrating Stories

  • Enhanced Memory Retention: Research suggests a 22-fold increase in memory retention compared to other knowledge transfer methods.

  • Increased Engagement: More captivating than conventional tutorials.

  • Improved Comprehension: Easier to understand.

  • Effective Communication: Conveys messages with a sense of meaning and is more persuasive.

  • Cost-Effective: Relatively inexpensive.

  • Skill Development: Storytelling hones the narrator's reflective abilities.

  • Simplified Presentation: Simplifies complex realities.

  • Clarity on Importance: Provides clarity on what is more significant.

  • Emotional Connection: Establishes a connection and fosters emotional engagement with the narrator, the story, and the message.

Characteristics of Stories

Organizational stories typically align with one of three categories: success, failure, or change.

  • Failure Stories: Sharing stories of failure can be challenging, as those involved may feel misunderstood or unjustly treated.

  • Success Stories: Narratives of success contribute to building confidence and boosting morale.

  • Change Stories: These encompass both success and failure aspects. Given their political nature, change stories provide insights into understanding organizational dynamics.

Storytelling Formats

Various formats are employed for conveying stories, and at NASA, these encompassed:

  • Share Forums

  • ASK Enterprise Magazine (produced quarterly)

  • Videos: Featuring interviews with individuals involved in the story

  • Podcasts

  • Dissemination of Case Studies

Additionally, learning from other organizations introduces additional formats, including:

  • TED Talks

Promoting Storytelling Solutions – Additional Recommendations

  1. Clear Goal Definition: Clearly define the goals that storytelling is intended to achieve.

  2. Project Kickoff Stories: Initiate each project with a story that illustrates the business problem addressed by the project.

  3. Incorporation into Presentation Formats: Integrate storytelling as an accepted format for presentations within the organization.

  4. Training Workshops: Conduct workshops to train managers and employees in storytelling skills.

  5. Medium Flexibility: Acknowledge that a story can be conveyed through various mediums—played, written, or visual.

  6. Iterative Storytelling Practice: Engage in iterative attempts to practice storytelling, refining the narrative until the optimal story is achieved.

Organizational culture

For the context of this book, organizational culture is defined as the unspoken rules of conduct that provide insight into how the organization functions.

The authors concentrate on three facets of culture in this chapter: collaboration, appreciation of knowledge, and trust.


Collaboration, as defined here, involves cooperative and voluntary work methods that are guided or encouraged by the prevailing organizational culture. Organizational culture typically exists on a spectrum between collaboration and competition, with collaborative approaches more prevalent in task-oriented environments.

The cultivation of a collaborative culture can be shaped by various means:

  • IBM, for instance, achieved this by modifying the compensation system to encompass three components: personal, divisional, and organizational success.

  • As another example, Square emphasizes the importance of cooperation and ego reduction as significant parameters when deciding on a deal.

Knowledge Assessment

The significance of knowledge is only sometimes fully acknowledged. The culture of valuing knowledge can be positively influenced by tools implemented at NASA, such as:

  • Knowledge communities.

  • Knowledge Academy (an expanded learning campus).

  • Inviting guest lectures to the organization.

  • Naming conference rooms after renowned knowledgeable thinkers.


The book's authors focus on the term "trust," examining it as they have done with other terms, particularly from a negative perspective. Here, the focus is on how distrust can impact knowledge sharing.

Tools to mitigate mistrust and foster trust include:

  • Demonstrating trust towards employees (e.g., approving expense accounts without meticulous checks, granting freedom of action regarding vacation usage).

  • Face-to-face meetings.

  • Emphasizing the shared purpose that everyone serves.

  • Involvement in decision-making processes.

Promoting Organizational Culture – Additional Recommendations

Management of organizational culture change is more readily and swiftly achieved in response to market forces (as evidenced by tragic disasters at NASA or the impact of events like COVID-19). Yet, organizations can actively contribute to this transformation. Key recommendations include:

  1. Committed Management: The commitment of leadership is crucial.

  2. Clear Guiding Principles: Establishing clear guiding principles provides a foundation for cultural change.

  3. Effective Communication and Messaging: Transparent communication and effective messaging are essential components.

  4. Development of Social Infrastructure: Investing in social infrastructure facilitates cultural shifts.

  5. Evaluation of Learning and Ideas: Continuous evaluation of learning and ideas supports the adaptive nature of cultural change.

  6. Shared Mission and Meaning: Fostering a shared sense of mission and meaning unifies efforts toward cultural transformation.

  7. Shift from Machine Analogies: Cease likening organizations to machines; instead, adopt analogies centered around organic and even human entities.

Work teams

Premise: Developing employees on a personal level alone is insufficient; expecting this to guarantee their success as teams falls short. Place a greater emphasis on comprehending the factors contributing to team success when collaborating on projects.

Outstanding Teams

  • Goal: Achieve exceptional results and outputs.

  • Characteristics: Energetic, creative, and imbued with a stronger sense of commitment than their counterparts.

  • Expectations: Demonstrated adaptability to changing realities and needs, fostering a culture of change and innovation for sustained peak productivity.

  • Pace: Capable of meeting the performance standards prevalent in agile practices today.

  • Result-oriented approach.

  • Utilization of situational understanding and awareness as tools to capitalize on opportunities, shaping activities accordingly.

  • Embracing openness to data for an honest and reliable comprehension of the situation.

Coping with Failures

In the intricate landscape of our current world, every team encounters failures. It is crucial for teams to:

  • Collect data to investigate and comprehend the events.

  • Possess effective communication skills.

  • Embrace failures as opportunities for learning and improvement.

Promoting an Outstanding Team Culture – Additional Recommendations

  • Prioritize people.

  • Foster an organizational mindset centered on learning and growth.

  • Provide organizational support, granting autonomy to adapt and respond to changing conditions without the necessity of constant communication with senior management. Encourage the formation of distributed and flexible teams.

  • Articulate business needs as a foundation for mission prioritization and engage in results-oriented activities. Sustain a shared understanding of the task's significance over time.

  • Cultivate emotional connections beyond functional bonds. Foster an environment of respect, inclusion, and care among team members, creating a psychologically safe space for expressing opinions, even those deemed unacceptable. Encourage a safe space for making mistakes.

  • Enhance the resilience of team members, enabling them to navigate both successes and failures along their journey.

Global collaboration across organizations and cultures

Through the narrative of establishing The International Space Station, a collaborative effort involving space agencies from diverse countries, the author, Don Cohen, imparts principles for successful cross-organizational and cross-cultural collaboration:

  • Establishing a foundation for cooperation before its commencement, fostering trust, engaging in joint partial projects, and encouraging dialogue.

  • Investing initial time in negotiations and drafting agreements to establish optimal conditions for cooperation, albeit requiring time resources. Defining agreed-upon rules for collaborative work that allow flexibility for each stakeholder.

  • Involving all stakeholders from the outset, even if some are deemed necessary only in later stages.

  • Embracing openness.

  • Demonstrating mutual trust.

  • Conducting professional evaluations among stakeholders.

  • Aligning with a common overarching goal (Note: sub-goals or additional goals may vary - M.L.).

  • Familiarizing oneself with and understanding the cultures of others, possibly by immersing individuals in shared living environments for periods. Selecting culturally sensitive individuals to promote inclusivity.

  • Grasping the language of others for effective communication.

  • Investing in personal connections between partners.

  • Preserving knowledge over time, recognizing the longevity of such projects and the inevitable personnel changes.

  • Sustaining investment in the aspects above throughout the lifespan of the collaboration, recognizing that these are not one-time tasks but an ongoing mode of operation.


In the current world characterized by unprecedented uncertainty, any project's substantial risks encompass social, political, and economic dimensions. Adding to this uncertainty, technology further complicates our ability to predict future events and anticipate developments that may impact us.

In this intricate landscape, the roles of knowledge and leadership become pivotal for our success, demanding effective management of both.

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