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NASA's mission to map the future of work and discover new talent

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett November 2, 2020
Space agency NASA has created a visual framework to map the future of work and inform its talent agenda both now and into the future

Artist's impression of future Artemis astronauts on moon via NASA

For some time now, we have all been bombarded with seemingly endless trends and predictions about the so-called ‘future of work', a theme that is clearly vital for an organization, such as US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which is all about pushing boundaries, wherever they may be.

Last week, for example, the US space agency revealed the discovery of water on the Moon that could support a permanent lunar base. It also teamed up with the European Space Agency to develop the Moon-orbiting Artemis Gateway space station that will support long-term lunar exploration — and potentially missions to other planets.

A key problem for many organizations though, including NASA, is predicting the future of work. According to Leah Johnson, a Vice President of Advisory at Gartner's HR practice, speaking at the market researcher's ReimagineHR conference in mid-October:

The sheer volume of information [about the future of work] has now gone beyond helpful to overwhelming and we're struggling with what to do with it. It's interesting but ambiguous, and information doesn't help with actionability. The future of work is impacting us already so we need to figure out what to do about it, but the volume of ambiguity means we're currently in a state of inertia.

NASA, however, has "explicitly and intentionally" attempted to do something meaningful about the situation. When its human talent team was tasked with putting together a future of work strategy for the workforce, it started by identifying over a hundred individual trends — 123 to be exact — that it believed were relevant and therefore worthy of consideration.

Three filters were then applied to try and establish which of these trends were likely to stick around, prove important and provide employees with some kind of advantage:

  • Longevity — the focus here being on whether a given trend was simply a flash-in-the-pan or whether it was likely to still be having an impact in 10-20 years time.
  • Alignment — this meant establishing whether a particular trend fitted in with what Elizabeth Kolmstetter, NASA's Director of Talent Strategy and Engagement, describes as the organization's "mission pivot". This pivot is based around the idea that the space agency is no longer going it alone but is now partnering with academics and key players in the emerging commercial space sector.
  • Opportunity — this was all about finding "actionable insights in the research" and taking "action in the short- and long-term to ensure it takes hold", said Kolmstetter.

Implementing the actionable insights

About 50 trends made it through these three filters onto the new priority list, but as the number was still relatively high, the decision was taken to group them into eight core themes based on the space agency's "end-state goals" relating to its talent strategy:

  1. Designing for agility, focusing on impact
  2. Redefining talent
  3. Learning and developing for a lifetime
  4. Deploying talent, mobilizing careers
  5. Embracing modern workspaces and collaboration
  6. Valuing sharing and security
  7. Prioritizing digital transformation
  8. Unleashing algorithms, analytics, AI and automation.

The eight themes were then embedded into an easy-to-understand, visual framework, with culture placed at the centre of four overlapping circles, each with its own focus — mission, people, place and technology. Going down this route was important, says Johnson, who explains:

It makes it easier for audiences across the agency to consume the vision. The framework has a strong visual identity and has been optimised for sharing, so you can build brand initiatives around the future of work vision.

The next step was to set up surveys, interviews and focus groups in order to establish how the framework and its themes resonated with stakeholders across the business and understand how they might use and consume them — and so far what is clear is that the initiative has proved to be a success.

The framework is now being used in a number of different ways, one of which is to inform ongoing initiatives. For instance, while access to a given system may have been restricted to those considered to need it in the past, under tenet six of the framework, which is about the value of sharing information, the situation has been turned on its head. Access is now denied only to those who should actively not be entitled to it.

Bridging the gap between strategy and operations

Other ways in which NASA has employed its framework is in selecting whether to go ahead with new activities or not based on their framework alignment score, and in informing the annual talent-planning meeting. Here the framework is used as a starting point to identify gaps between the current state of play and the future vision in order to take appropriate action if necessary. It is also employed to evaluate and decide on the scope of any forthcoming initiatives. Johnson explains:

The fact that NASA was able to embed the framework into the way work is, and will be, done stood out for me as it's had an immediate, and future, impact. It's about how their vision of the future of work informs initiatives in progress and steers new ones when planning for the future. The framework is also key to planning and to the organization's talent strategy as it's provided common goals to rally around, including with initiatives that aren't fully formed yet.

Nick Skytland, Deputy Chief of NASA's Exploration Technology Office, agrees:

We wanted to develop a framework to bridge the gap between strategy and operations, which can be very hard to do but allows us to take current initiatives and tweak them. For example, hiring is expensive and people tend to stay with us for a long time, with careers being on average 30 to 40 years. But one in three US workers today are freelancers and lots of them are interested in working for NASA.

So while we're not going to stop hiring civil servants, we could hire along a continuum, which means gig workers, freelancers and bots as we're enhancing our operations through technology too. So you can use the framework not only to think about what you're doing today, but also how it blends with your requirements for the future.

A key project in this context has been the creation of the organization's agency-wide internal talent marketplace. The aim of the initiative was to expand access to an internal talent pool that could staff different program based on key criteria, such as skills and grade. Another objective was to give employees the chance to boost their skills and experience by participating in onsite and remote projects, lateral assignments and rotations from across the business, which they may not have had access to in the past.

According to Johnson, the move has already enabled NASA to compete more effectively both internally and externally in talent terms "by being ahead of future of work trends". It has also created what she describes as:

[A] more transparent and accessible way for internal talent to seek opportunities to develop their skills, and for the organization to build a culture of mobility, engagement and innovation, driven by talent being able to access those opportunities.

My take

Gartner indicates that the number one future of work challenge organisations face is that they have no explicit strategy to deal with it. As a result, NASA's efforts to create a visual future of work framework to help inform their activities could act as a useful template for others trying to get to grips with this complex and opaque issue. And who knows — it could even help to get the next man, or woman, on the moon.

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