Learnings from NASA — How to Create an Agile Team
This is part two of an interview with former NASA engineer Alex Smith on Agile Communications. Click here to read part one.
On space missions where everyone works in regimented teams to keep satellites on course, NASA uses a command center to improve collaboration. I sat down with Alex Smith, a former software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and now the lead visualization engineer at Zignal Labs, to learn how enterprises can use a command center approach to improve decision making and collaboration. Read part one here and hear more on Alex’s insights in our webinar on “How to Build an Agile Digital Communications Team.”
Tom Howells: where should you put a command center within an organization?
Alex Smith: It has to be in a prominent area that gets a lot of eye traffic. It’s good for everyone at the company to know the company cares enough about analytics and brand health to have an entire room devoted to analyzing media data — it genuinely does boost morale. It also opens eyes and starts conversations about what different teams can do with this data. The comms and marketing departments, who tend to own the command center, often benefit the most. Those two teams are at the hub, but there are many more spokes that use the command center including investor relations, risk, IT, security, reputation, fraud, government relations — the list keeps growing. But as I said, it’s important to have the command center located in a busy location to start conversations with different teams to break down departmental silos.
TH: From your experience, how have you seen companies adapt their workflows because of a command center?
AS: There are a couple of ways that stand out for me. The command center is built to be flexible so multiple teams can use it at the same time and work together. One company actively schedules different groups that may not traditionally cross paths to be in the command center together a couple of times a week. This encourages collaboration between the two teams and also creates a new way of thinking when it comes to analysis. The analytics team starts tailoring reports and data collection to the teams with whom they work as there is a constant feedback loop.
We’re also seeing new positions being created for things like determining what online content is real and fake. Does this role fall under IT security, risk or comms? No one really knows and it varies from company to company at the moment, but someone needs to take responsibility for this.
TH: It seems like everyone’s role within the NASA command center is regulated. Do you think that’s the right way to set up a command center to foster collaboration?
AS: It’s a balance and depends on the organization; you need some structure to make this collaborative approach a success. The best companies have a core team that owns the room — without this, the space gets stale, people get bored and the value gained from the room diminishes. But by design, the command center is built to foster collaboration organically as it’s an aesthetically pleasing area. In a big corporation, you can work in a cube or you can be in this futuristic Star Trek Enterprise-esque open team space — it’s a place built for people to geek out around data.
TH: How have you seen enterprises use command centers and how does this differ from how the one at NASA was used?
AS: NASA is a highly matrixed organization where everything is structured and everyone has a very specific role. In this kind of environment, people want freedom. The command center provides this less structured environment for them to operate. The primary function at NASA is monitoring the different components involved in the mission and surfacing alerts as they happen so teams can take swift action to remedy the issue.
Usage in the enterprise follows a similar pattern, but the environment is slightly less structured than the one at NASA. Again, monitoring brand health and fast-moving trends are the main uses we’ve seen for the command center. What we have seen though is teams notice something abnormal on one of the screens, say an unusual word in a word cloud, and then start digging into the data in real-time to uncover the cause. Research has to be done quickly — the quality of an answer declines over 5 minutes, so the quicker we can get from seeing something on the screen to making a decision, the better. From there, you can take those learnings and feed them back into the command center by tweaking a query or creating a new dashboard to get the most accurate results possible.
To hear more from Alex, listen to the recording of our webinar: “How to Build an Agile Digital Communications Team.”