NASA program proves the benefits of social networking

NASAsphere program draws participants from all agency centers and age groups

The intelligence community isn't the only one that has discovered the power of internal social networking among peers. NASA has experienced some success, too.

Last year, the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory conducted an agencywide 60-day pilot study to explore how a social-media platform could help contractors and employees collaborate. Most participants found social networking useful, the study showed, and people shared information in ways that wouldn't have happened without the tool.

JPL set up the service, called NASAsphere, to investigate whether NASA personnel would use social-networking tools if they were available. The program used the Socialcast enterprise microblogging platform.

"They were trying to connect workers at different workforces," said Tim Young, chief executive officer of Socialcast. He noted that NASA has a lot of senior workers who will be retiring within the next few years, so any approach that could help preserve their institutional knowledge would be a valuable asset.

When the service went live, invitations were sent to various NASA personnel, including those who were signed on to the agency's knowledge management mailing list. They were asked to post five questions or ideas, answer or comment on at least two questions or ideas, and keep their personal profile up-to-date. They could also do things such as create groups and upload photos and other publicly available material. In addition, participants could file topics under a standard set of categories, and they could add their own keywords, which others could use to search for content.

In effect, the pilot study's planners asked participants to try the service instead of using their usual methods. "Instead of e-mailing out to 20 people on your team, use this software and see how that process is different," Young said. "The goal was to leverage the collective intelligence of the NASA workforce."

Of the first set of invitations, 78 users signed on. The original participants invited 398 colleagues to join, 55 percent of whom did so. Within 60 days, 295 users had joined the community, including at least one person from each NASA center. The users were surveyed about their experiences using the medium.

The study showed how social networking could be useful — namely by allowing people to join a conversation and contribute valuable details that might have not surfaced otherwise. Approximately 93 percent of questions posted to the community were answered by users at different NASA centers. Almost 82 percent found “it was easy to communicate openly” on the social network, and 65.5 percent of the participants found the service helpful.

Interestingly enough, although Generation X-aged employees (those born between 1964 and 1981) were the biggest users of the social-networking service, the baby boomers (those born before 1964) and Generation Y (born after 1981) also used the service. Forty percent of the users were Gen X, while Gen Y and the baby boomers each made up approximately 23.6 percent — the rest of the participants declined to answer the question about age. Young said the percentages bode well for cross-generational data sharing.

As required by procurement rules, the pilot program could only last 60 days. If NASA wants to pursue social networking on a fully operational level, the procurement of software would need to go through the standard procurement process, Young said. But the lessons learned are clear: Social networking can help large agencies share more information.

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