Social media helps NRC combat brain drain
Tomoye, SharePoint tools support online communities of interest to retain and share knowledge
- By William Jackson
- Sep 02, 2010
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, like many government agencies, faces the challenge of retaining and sharing the technical expertise of an aging workforce that is being replaced by younger workers.
“Most of us came in during the ’70s and ’80s” and are beginning to retire, said Patricia Eng, NRC’s senior adviser for knowledge management. Agencies are hiring new employees to take their places, but NRC estimates that it is losing an estimated 3,900 years of experience every year.
The challenge of maintaining specialized knowledge during this generational shift is compounded by the commission’s distributed structure, which results in silos of expertise in separate offices. Its headquarters is in Rockville, Md., and the agency has regional offices in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Nevada and Tennessee. It also has on-site inspectors permanently stationed at each nuclear power plant that it regulates.
The knowledge management challenge is simple, as Eng sees it: “Get the information that is needed to the right person.” To achieve that, she said, “we went simple.”
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During the past three years, NRC has been rolling out the Tomoye enterprise social networking tool that integrates with Microsoft SharePoint and allows users on the commission’s intranet to collaborate and share information and documents.
“We provide them with a product that supports development of communities of practice and allows professional networking inside the environment,” said Eric Sauve, vice president of NewsGator Technologies, which acquired Tomoye in January.
Tomoye is a commercial product that was easily customized for NRC’s use and has required no help-desk support or user training, Eng said.
“It’s Facebook-like; it’s got wiki-like tools,” she said. Because it sits behind the agency’s firewall, Eng does not have to worry about encryption or additional user access controls for security.
To date, about a quarter of the NRC staff is using Tomoye to collaborate and share. There are no plans to require all the staff to join the community. Eng said she is content to let use of the platform spread virally, with new users joining as they see the value of it, “because the software is so easy to use.”
Ease of use is critical to Eng, who said that, despite her title, “I still don’t know anything about the theory of knowledge management.”
A nuclear engineer by training, Eng is a self-described professional gypsy who joined NRC in the 1980s. “I’ve been everywhere in the agency you can go,” she said. “I don’t like to be in one place too long.”
One of her recent assignments was a three-year stint at NASA, where she was on loan to work on a nuclear propulsion system. The agency, faced with developing a new generation of manned space vehicles to replace the shuttle fleet, was often hampered by the loss of experienced scientists and engineers who had worked on earlier manned spaceflight projects.
“Frequently, we had this loss of information on the technical side,” Eng said, and the agency needed a way to recover and correlate that data and support its educational programs. “That was my first exposure to communities of practice” and to knowledge management, she said.
Eng returned to NRC in 2007, and she found that the commission had begun a pilot program using Tomoye, with data housed on a Tomoye server in Canada. When she began making noise about the need to retain and share information, she was given the knowledge management title and put in charge of the effort.
Her preference was to bring Tomoye in-house and deploy it behind the commission’s firewall to allow communities of practice to collaborate through it. But Microsoft also was invited to offer a proposal for using its SharePoint collaboration platform to create communities. Microsoft said it could do the job for $1.7 million and that it would take two years to develop and deliver. For Eng the decision was simple.
“This is not rocket science,” she said. “I worked at NASA for three years; I know what rocket science is, and this is not it.”
Tomoye integrates closely with SharePoint to access data, NewsGator’s Sauve said. “Essentially, we work in the Microsoft environment.”
The platform supports blogs, video sharing, document collaboration and professional networking. It works with NRC’s document management system, and a feature has been added to capture online discussions as PDFs for discovery and archiving. The commission also has more than 60G of video interviews with outgoing workers to help preserve their knowledge and experience that it plans to make accessible through Tomoye.
“We plan to link everything into the Tomoye system,” Eng said. The key to making it accessible is to tag it with metadata so that people can quickly find the right information. That requires user participation, she said. “I allow anybody to tag anything,” and multiple tags can be added to a file as nomenclature changes.
Installing the platform did not require any additional infrastructure or capital outlay beyond the $50,000 for seat licensing, and the browser interface was easy to customize for her preferences, Eng said. “I can build anything I want.”
Training materials consist of an online screenshot tutorial. A nine-page governance document outlines user policies. The training program for the platform is based on what Eng calls “embedded peer-to-peer training,” a term that means letting workers train one another. She identified individual users who showed an interest in Tomoye in each NRC office and designated them as superusers who would make themselves available to help colleagues who wanted to use the platform.
Superusers have been the primary training force for the collaborative tool and have helped design the user interface so that it would be intuitive to use.
Making knowledge management user-friendly is simply a matter of focusing on the end you are trying to achieve rather than trying to use the most sophisticated functionality available, Eng said.
“For me, IT is a tool,” she said. “The process is the point. Technology is just a means to an end.”
William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.