Time to talk

Thomas R. Temin

As NASA ponders the future of space flight and how to manage it, the agency is learning a new lesson about its earthly communications.

Watching the gathering storm of blame in the aftermath of last month's shuttle accident, I keep coming back to reports of e-mail exchanges among engineers. They expressed worry, mostly among themselves, that those chunks of debris striking the shuttle's left wing were not merely harmless bits of matter.

Several media reports initially noted that the fears did not get communicated up through the ranks or, when they did, nobody listened. It seemed to be another scandalous e-mail 'gotcha.'

But earlier this month the engineer who wrote some worst-case scenario messages said his e-mail had been misconstrued, that he hadn't in fact believed the shuttle was in imminent danger and that whatever concerns he had received due attention from his superiors. Let's assume he spoke of his own free will. It says a lot about the dangers of e-mail after-the-fact.

E-mail, lacking tone and nuance, can be and often is misinterpreted, either by the recipient or, in this case, by a third party.

People are more casual in e-mail than in written letters and memoranda. E-mail exchanges are like conversations, with lots of off-the-cuff content, musings and sometimes humor that goes unperceived by the recipient.

For many years, the government has been struggling with how to preserve electronic messages, many of which are official documents. The NASA incident begs the question, what are agencies saving when they save e-mail? If the intent and tone is so easily misread at the time of a note's inception, what conclusions might be wrongly inferred from post-facto readings?

I note with sadness the passing of Robert V. Head, former software executive, federal IRM practitioner and magazine editor. For a while in the 1980s and early 1990s, Bob wrote a column in GCN about IRM issues.

My first week on the job, I spent an afternoon with Bob as he went over the basics of federal procurement and IRM with me. He patiently explained concepts, new to me, such as the Brooks Act and delegation of procurement authority. I knew I was in the presence of an expert, and I never forgot it. He will be missed.

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