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ISS illustration
Commercial access to the ISS provides NASA with an opportunity to reshape the value it brings to spaceflight and how it communicates that to the public. (credit: NASA)

Sustaining exploration: communications, relevance, and value (part 2)

In the first half of this article (see “Sustaining exploration: communications, relevance, and value”, The Space Review, November 12, 2007), I reviewed some of our research on public opinion regarding NASA and space exploration, and traced related activities and discussions over the past year. In the second half of the piece I will explain in more detail what is meant by the word “value” and make a case for a realignment of NASA and its activities, transforming the space agency into a value-driven organization.

NASA as a value delivery system

In general, an organization’s activities and the resulting customer/stakeholder experience are considered to be of value when the worth of the experience exceeds the resources expended to get it. In other words, if you are willing to pay for an experience (or product), or otherwise expend resources (time, effort) in order to get it, then it is, by definition, of value to you. The specific organizational activities leading to these experiences are called “Value Propositions” (VPs), which are made up of both the experiences offered to customers and the price that is charged for them.1 VPs can be developed in a number of ways, often evolving within an organization as a function of its culture, history, and current capabilities rather than through a deliberate, customer-centered process.

Any organization that conveys VPs to its customers can be thought of as a “Value Delivery System” (VDS). To be an effective VDS, an organization must provide and communicate superior VPs - in other words, create value, deliver it, and disseminate information about it to its stakeholders. Interestingly, the public’s answers to the question “What could NASA do to be more relevant?” addressed both of these things, indicating that NASA needed to deliver activities of value as well as to communicate better about them. It is the position of this author that this is the greatest organizational challenge facing the agency, and the most critical for sustaining the space exploration enterprise.

The “top down” model of agency value

Conventional wisdom holds that government agencies exist outside the relationship between customers, value, and the organization. When VPs are created in the public sphere, they are frequently assumed to stem from policy handed down from the White House, Congress, or some other actor or force from outside the agency. The role of the public institution, in this view, is simply to implement policy. Agency leaders are judged by whether they meet or fail to meet this goal.

Interestingly, the public’s answers to the question “What could NASA do to be more relevant?” addressed both of these things, indicating that NASA needed to deliver activities of value as well as to communicate better about them.

One consequence of the “top down” view of agency value management is the perception that governmental organizations are not free to develop their own VPs, or to undertake the type of organizational restructuring that may be necessary to recreate themselves as superior Value Delivery Systems. For NASA, the current version of this argument is that the Bush Administration’s Vision for Space Exploration is NASA’s irrevocable “mandate”. NASA, it is said, is not free to develop new VPs—or if it does, those VPs must be in direct service to this mandate.

The argument quickly breaks down to an “either/or” decision set. Either NASA can fulfill its VSE mandate and deliver VPs in service of the VSE or it can devote energy to creatively inferring and developing new VPs and a related VDS. This is clearly a false dichotomy; however, when presented in these terms the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Programs such as Constellation are seen as the mechanism to fulfill the policy mandate and are treated as NASA’s raison d’être. This in turn leads to the belief that any activity not driven directly by the programs—such as the development of new value opportunities—is off-target at best. At worst, it diverts resources and skills that should be devoted to solely to program execution, creating additional risk for program managers.

This type of thinking is dangerous to sustaining the space exploration enterprise, for several reasons. First, tying the agency’s VPs solely to policy mandates makes NASA hostage to policy changes from one Administration to the next. Over time, this leads to a “reactive” rather than “proactive” stance among agency managers and career civil servants. This is not a good basis for creative renewal of the organization and its personnel, and will eventually impact the quality of the workforce and the ability of the agency to recruit and maintain the kinds of passionate, energetic individuals who are needed to meet the challenges of a long-term vision.

Second, if programs such as Constellation, or Earth Science, or their components, are viewed as the basis for NASA’s existence, policy changes that repeatedly disrupt program strategy can erode support for NASA among all of its stakeholders, some of whom have begun to wonder what NASA’s enduring value truly is. Since NASA serves several different groups of stakeholders, it puts NASA at risk if the only VPs it may develop must be driven by one program or another. Instead, the programs should be linked directly to VPs that are “market-centered” and responsive not only to the needs of policy makers but to the entire array of stakeholder groups. Without such an underlying value architecture, programs are brittle and prone to break when the policy environment changes. This is of particular concern when contemplating a space exploration effort that is intended to evolve over decades.

Third, the notion that public institutions such as NASA are not tied to the broader market forces that drive business strategy is simply not true. In his landmark book Creating Public Value, Mark Moore draws on over 15 years of research and analysis at Harvard’s Kennedy School to demonstrate how value is created in government agencies, with transformative effects. He dismisses the idea that government agencies have no paying customers, pointing out that agencies must deliver value to their stakeholders or face the loss of funding.2 The implications for NASA and space exploration are clear.

Finally, there is no predetermination that the process of discovering new VPs would distract from NASA’s ability to execute its current programs. Instead, the process of discovering, developing, and delivering new VPs will help NASA to define its mission and strengthen its offerings to the stakeholders it must serve across many Administrations and Congressional sessions. Those who argue that the expenditure of resources necessary to discover, develop, and deliver new VPs will distract NASA from existing program challenges ignore the possibility that the process will produce results that are synergistic, amplifying both the relevance and longevity of the VSE as well as the non-VSE VPs that accrue from it.

Discovering value

NASA is aware of the importance of stakeholder analysis and has attempted to address it over the years. Of late it has provided grants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to model the agency’s value architecture. The MIT model incorporates stakeholders, value domains (frequently referred to as “value arenas” or “opportunity spaces”), stakeholder value, and value delivery pathways, which describe the flows by which value is created and delivered.3 Drawing on consultations with stakeholders and examination of governing documents for the agency, the authors developed a model that includes eight key customer/stakeholder groups for NASA. These are the economic infrastructure surrounding NASA, educators, the President and Congress, International Partners, the media, the science community, the security community, and the American people. (NASA is also one of its own stakeholders, since different parts of the agency create and deliver value to other parts.) Each of these groups has a vested interest, represented either by monetary expenditures or the investment of other types of resources. Each affects the likelihood of NASA’s continued funding. NASA’s challenge is to design and develop VPs and to deliver them effectively so as to maximize its responsiveness to and benefits from this diverse base of groups and individuals. Once made, these decisions will drive all of NASA’s activities, including the space exploration architecture. These drivers must direct not only the technical systems, but the structure and processes of the exploration enterprise together with its policy environment.4

The process of discovering, developing, and delivering new value propositions will help NASA to define its mission and strengthen its offerings to the stakeholders it must serve across many Administrations and Congressional sessions.

Undertaking a commitment to develop new VPs affords NASA the potential to address this array of stakeholders and to engage new ones. Properly done, the process of discovering value within an organization with NASA’s tremendous capabilities can unleash a torrent of creative energy. Previous examples of public agencies and corporate entities undergoing such transformation are illustrative of both the challenges and long-lasting benefits of dong so.5,6 One thing that each of these organizations has in common is the realization that value discovery is not about what they have achieved in the past, but about what their stakeholders require now and in the future. Value discovery involves a systematic, multidisciplinary approach to studying customers and stakeholders in a variety of settings, then inferring solutions for them that the organization would not identify for itself.

An exploration of the various methods for discovering and developing VPs and for building an organizational blueprint for a VDS is beyond the scope of this article.7 Whichever process is adopted, this type of effort is best implemented by convening teams made up of experts in value discovery, stakeholder analysis, organizational development, management systems, and representatives from NASA itself. The team(s) must be empowered from above to explore new growth opportunities and value arenas that are independent of programs as well as within or across them. The same team should be aware of and seek to leverage core competencies, build new ones when necessary, and utilize established customer- and market-centric methods to grow and deliver value in identified value arenas.8

To be clear, a willingness to let go of the past in order to discover value does not mean abandoning the experience that NASA has built up over almost 50 years of spaceflight—quite the contrary. Abandoning the capabilities and expertise that have developed over five decades is tantamount to throwing away key assets owned by the United States government and its people. Leveraging those capabilities in new and creative ways is part of the development of a value-centered organization. The public, the government officials responsible for NASA funding, and all of NASA’s other stakeholders have every right to expect that NASA would do so.

A hypothetical example: forsaking part of the past to create value in the future

The process of discovering, developing, and managing value includes an assessment of NASA’s VPs in the context of the broader market, in competition with all other organizations that deliver similar VPs. As an example, suppose that NASA’s VPs within the next five years will no longer include the operation of space hardware in low Earth orbit (LEO). It isn’t that NASA cannot deliver this VP; on the contrary, it has a long history of doing so. However, the relevant capabilities and expertise are no longer resident solely within NASA (and Roskosmos) and are, in fact, propagating rapidly around the globe. It may well be that others will be better able than NASA to operate missions for a broader range of customers, or at lower cost, or in some other way that enhances customer experience—and soon.

In order to be open to new value arenas that could be created as space operations were set aside, NASA would need to forsake its past belief that LEO operations are central to its very being. Since LEO “ops” has been a key part of its organizational identity for almost 50 years, this will be very difficult. Value discovery teams would have to do a hard-headed, independent assessment of the larger space operations market, and would need strong leadership from the top to persuade the rest of the agency of the results. Such an assessment would reveal that many things have changed, and that the rate of change is likely to increase.

A few examples of recent changes in the LEO ops market are as follows:

  • A developing capability to model, implement, and manage suborbital space operations in the private sector, providing valuable experience as a stepping-stone to orbital space operations;
  • A multinational capability to execute on-orbit space operations, developed in part as a result of participation with NASA in the International Space Station program;
  • A parallel multinational capability to participate in on-orbit operations that has been facilitated by Roskosmos;
  • A rapidly expanding international interest in, and governmental commitment to, space exploration on the part of nations and space agencies, some of whom are already in LEO and intend to move beyond;
  • The international development of sophisticated networks, operations expertise, and telemetry management capabilities that have arisen over the past 40 years in the satellite industry;
  • Growing space robotics capabilities in academia and industry, on an international scale;
  • The development of advanced networking protocols within the private sector, including C3I (command control, communications, and intelligence), as a result of private contractor organizations utilized in intelligence for and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • The commitment of large, multinational corporations to the development of space infrastructure;
  • Private industry development, deployment and operation of on-orbit space hardware
  • The development of organizations with both public and private customers for space operations (for example, the Universal Space Network)

Taken together, the landscape for LEO space operations is becoming populated by non-NASA entities as never before. Once the market is mature enough, NASA can and should relinquish its operator role and become a customer. (This assumes that the capabilities available in the marketplace do not create unacceptable vulnerability to geopolitical or other market disruptions.) It is reasonable to assume that the agency will continue to wield considerable influence as a powerful stakeholder.

Long before that time, NASA needs to recognize that holding onto the past vis-à-vis LEO will move it down a dead-end path toward organizational obsolescence, rather than freeing resources that could be employed to beckon the future. This could have significant and negative impacts on NASA’s competitiveness for future funding. But what of NASA’s LEO ops capabilities? How can these be leveraged to create new opportunity spaces, and to develop new VPs for current or future customers?

Several possibilities present themselves, many of which are already underway.

  • NASA can participate in an international body to develop standards for space operations;9
  • NASA can contribute its unique capabilities to the exploration and development of ocean-based resources;
  • NASA can become a lead integrator of space operations for both private and public organizations (domestic and international);
  • NASA can use its expertise and position in the customer marketplace to drive new innovations in LEO, using public/private platforms as test beds and facilitating public/private collaboration;
  • NASA can focus on entrepreneurial advocacy in LEO;
  • NASA can partner with other nations, providing expertise to international development of space operations capabilities in an advisory capacity (in return for offsets or government-to-government agreements in any one of several domains, not necessarily solely related to space);
  • NASA can lead mission planning for resource development in the solar system (energy, raw materials, etc.) in public/private/domestic/international efforts.
NASA needs to recognize that holding onto the past vis-à-vis LEO will move it down a dead-end path toward organizational obsolescence, rather than freeing resources that could be employed to beckon the future.

The essential aspect of this list is that each of these options represents an application of space operations expertise in an emerging value arena. The most exciting and potentially most valuable applications are those that are not on the list and have yet to be imagined.10 However, is also worth remembering that this exercise is hypothetical, focused on only one component of institutional change. It will require a systematic, comprehensive, multidisciplinary team approach, endorsed from the highest levels in the agency, to discover new VPs, validate some existing ones, and align the organization to effectively deliver each of them to its stakeholders.

(Re)creating the future

Space exploration produces knowledge, technology, stimulation of the economy, and the potential for new resource development, among other things. However, sustaining the VSE across the decades required to fully realize its promise means that NASA must be able to justify the continued investment of money and resources required for this endeavor. In order to achieve this, NASA must make conscious decisions that create specific, easily understandable value for its stakeholders. Further, it will need to revisit those decisions over the 40+ years of the VSE. Just as approaches mired in the past may not be serving NASA well at present, VPs developed now may be of significantly less value, or become completely irrelevant, 40 years hence.

It should be obvious that the resources required to take NASA through a value-based renewal are non-trivial. They will need to be marshaled and driven by no less than the Administrator of the agency, or by a center director, should the process begin at a center (although it should not end there.) This will be particularly challenging in an agency with ongoing operational and developmental commitments, and will require active cultivation and maintenance of internal and external political coalitions that will support the goal of NASA’s transformation. These issues are complicated by the fact that NASA’s market arena is complex and includes a variety of customer segments, both domestic and international. Nonetheless, as long as NASA must compete for resources in the broader public market, it will be susceptible to the pressures and forces within that market that inevitably demand substantive change.

Conclusion

I began Part 1 of this article with a review of our research efforts and the outcomes that have helped spur a rethinking of NASA’s interactions with the public. Among other things, these have created new awareness of some of the differences that exist in the public perception of NASA by various groups, and of the communications tactics necessary to reach them (for example, young Americans).11,12 To come full circle, it is worth restating that those research projects remind us that the American public is not monolithic. The same is true for all of NASA’s stakeholders. In order for NASA to become an effective VDS, the methods that it uses to develop and deliver value must be carefully researched, constructed, and executed. It is here that communications “tactics” are critically important, as is the larger strategic communications effort that manages them. Communications, VPs, and NASA’s stakeholder market are all part of a larger and wholly interdependent system. Attempts to address any one of these components in isolation are likely to fail.

The space exploration enterprise can only be sustained by public relations and communications efforts if NASA aligns those efforts with its activities and a clear understanding of its stakeholders and their needs.

To be sure, NASA is a Value Delivery System; it has developed VPs and delivers them to its stakeholders. The real question is whether that VDS and those VPs are superior ones, enabling NASA to sustain the VSE by competing with other demands for government funding over the long term. It is not sufficient for NASA to simply communicate about certain activities and concepts without first selecting appropriate Value Propositions. Those VPs must drive agency activities and communications, not the other way around. Put another way - no matter how many times the assertion is made that a program or an agency has value, even the most brilliantly executed communications strategy will not make it so. Communicating is not the same thing as delivering value.

Strategic Communications and the careful selection of Value Propositions are not “either/or” choices. They are complimentary components of an integrated Value Delivery System which, if put in place at NASA, can direct agency strategy and customer relations creatively and effectively, with periodic renewal over the long term. The space exploration enterprise can only be sustained by public relations and communications efforts if NASA aligns those efforts with its activities and a clear understanding of its stakeholders and their needs.13

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr. Lynn Phillips, Mark Craig, and Bruce Cameron, who participated with me on a panel entitled “Sustaining Exploration” at AIAA Space 2007. The six months of discussions among us prior to the conference, and the papers written for it, inform many of the ideas in this article. Thanks also to Marty Kress, who graciously co-chaired the session with me, and to John Horack who enabled us to put it together in the first place. Additional thanks to AIAA for providing us the forum to discuss some of these ideas and explore their application to NASA. Further information can be obtained from the papers presented during the session, which cited in the references and are available from the AIAA website.

References

  1. Reinventures, LLC (2005). Central Concepts of Delivering Winning Value Propositions. White Paper.
  2. Moore, M. H. (1995). Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Cameron, B. & Crawley, E. F. (2007). “Architecting Value: The Implications of Benefit Network Models for NASA Exploration”. In Proceedings of AIAA Space 2007, September 18-20, Long Beach, CA. Paper # AIAA 2007-9930. Washington, D.C.: AIAA. p. 3
  4. Cameron, B., & Crawley, E., p. 4
  5. Moore, M. H., p. 94.
  6. Freiburg, K, & Freiburg, J. (1996). Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success. Austin, TX: Bard Books. (currently available only in paperback, published by Broadway.)
  7. Phillips, L. (2007). “Managing Customer Value When Your Program’s Survival Depends on It”. In Proceedings of AIAA Space 2007, September 18-20, Long Beach, CA. Paper # AIAA 2007-9928. Washington, D.C.: AIAA. pp. 12-13.
  8. Phillips, L., p. 13
  9. See The Global Exploration Strategy Framework document, available at http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/178109main_ges_framework.pdf
  10. Craig, M. K. (2007). “NASA’s Value to the Nation: 50 Years of Lessons on Sustainability”. In Proceedings of AIAA Space 2007, September 18-20, Long Beach, CA. Paper #2007-9931. Washington, D.C.: AIAA.
  11. Dittmar, M. L. “Engaging the 18-25 Generation: Educational Outreach, Interactive Technologies, and Space”. In Proceedings of AIAA Space 2006, September 19-21, San Jose, CA. Paper #AIAA 2006-7303. Washington, D. C. : AIAA.
  12. Finarelli, P. & Pryke, I. (2007). “Building and Maintaining the Constituency for Long-Term Space Exploration”. Space Policy, 23 (1), February. pp. 13-19.
  13. Dittmar, M. L. (2007). “Sustainability, Strategic Communications, and Relevance: Why YouTube Won’t Get Us to Mars.” In Proceedings of AIAA Space 2007, September 18-20, Long Beach, CA. Paper # AIAA 2007-9929. Washington, D. C.: AIAA.

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