Open Innovation at NASA: Impact in Culture

The open innovation initiative implemented by NASA generated divergent opinions among the R&D professionals working for the agency. The problem that NASA faces with the implementation of open innovation is how to organize and shift the culture, roles and processes to embrace such trend.


NASA has been innovating in space exploration since 1958. NASA successfully put a man on the moon in 1969 and had continued pushing the boundaries of science since then. A key component of NASA’s success comes from the innovation of world-class highly-specialized scientists and professionals working on the research and development department of the agency. Traditionally, these knowledge leaders work within the organization and only collaborate with public and private organizations of their choosing to bring knowledge into their innovation process. To continue enhancing its innovation capabilities, in 2009 the agency started an open innovation initiative which proved to be very successful by achieving significant scientific breakthroughs at extraordinary speed and with extremely little resources. Despite its success, the open innovation initiative generated divergent opinions among the R&D professionals working at NASA, where one group felt threatened and insulted by the initiative, causing disturbance in their work, processes and culture. The problem that NASA faces with the implementation of open innovation is how to organize and shift the culture, roles and processes to embrace such trend.

At NASA the standard R&D process take 3 to 5 years. In 2009 when the open innovation initiative was first implemented, the average cycle took 3 to 6 months. Also, the cost of the standard R&D process is very high versus the open innovation process where very little resources where committed (NASA offered awards to winners in the range of $15,000 to $30,000). In 2009, 14 problems were revealed to the public, 114 NASA professionals worked using the standard process, while more than 3000 individuals worked using the open innovation model. The solutions shared by the public exceeded NASA’s expectation. As a lead scientist mentioned, “In general, it is known that to receive a solution for that cost [the open innovation award] would not be possible otherwise. Turnaround time for a solution like this could take years under the standard R&D model.” The most successful solution among those received in 2009 came from a from a semiretired radio engineer, who proposed a completely different approach to forecast solar flares coming from solar storms, the algorithm he created was 25% more accurate than the solution proposed by NASA’s scientists under the slower and more expensive standard R&D process. These results represent for NASA a whole new way of doing business.

To tackle the problem about changing culture and processes when open innovation is implemented, first it is important to understand who are the individuals that are currently pushing innovation at NASA. These R&D professionals are highly motivated by innovating, in arguably, one of the most groundbreaking organization in the world. These professionals are willing to take a pay-cut to join NASA and consider themselves “problem solvers”. The level of expertise these professionals have creates substantial knowledge boundaries, and a good portion of these professionals usually keep their knowledge inside these boundaries. Unless willingly chosen, innovation coming from outside these boundaries will not be welcomed. The introduction of open innovation crosses these boundaries giving the opportunity to anyone from the outside to share their knowledge. Under an open innovation initiative R&D professional need to shift from being “problem solvers” to “solution seekers” and to look at the world outside their labs. Also, to implement open innovation, R&D professionals need to share the problems they are trying to solve in the first place. When the initiative was implemented by NASA in 2009 the opinion of the R&D professionals was split, leaving those more reluctant to change feeling threatened and undervalued. A part of this group openly attacked and criticized the initiative, while others just ignored the finding shared by the public. As a senior scientist, noted: “I’ve been attracted to places that allow you to access a problem, come up with a plan, and execute the solution . . . to be able to think and solve greater problems. If I can’t do it at NASA, what is keeping me from going somewhere else?”.

To shift to an open innovation model, NASA is organizing some of its internal departments (such as the Human Health and Performance Directorate) differently, addressing to both structural and cultural changes. Scientist eliminate knowledge boundaries and open their R&D strategic challenges and data to the public. Another key part is taking the internal development software to an open source, allowing internal knowledge to flow. Also, integrating and utilizing the external knowledge received through the open platform. NASA should continue to gradually incorporate open innovation into some of its processes, given the efficiencies generated with such model. However, NASA needs to put special attention on how implement the change since culture inside the organization could be negatively impacted.

The question remains on how should NASA approach open innovation. Should it change all the R&D processes to the open innovation model? Can standard and open innovation processes coexist in the same organization. What will be the impact on the organization’s culture?

 

Lifshitz-Assaf, Hila. 2017. “Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries At NASA: The Critical Role Of Professional Identity In Open Innovation”. Administrative Science Quarterly 63 (4): 746-782. doi:10.1177/0001839217747876.

Richard, Elizabeth E., and Jeffrey R. Davis. 2014. “NASA Human Health And Performance Center: Open Innovation Successes And Collaborative Projects”. Acta Astronautica 104 (1): 383-387. doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2014.05.010.

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26 thoughts on “Open Innovation at NASA: Impact in Culture

  1. I grew up loving the idea of space exploration and NASA’s space shuttle program. This essay is very interesting because I understand the stance of some of NASA’s R&D department, but the results of the open source program is undeniable. I think a solution is to allow the NASA scientists to focus on projects they choose so they are thought leaders in that area and utilize the open source network for projects the NASA team does not have time to research. The open innovation model would be extremely useful to capture the hearts and minds of aspiration astronauts and give everyone a chance to be a NASA researcher. The space program has captivated the Nation since the 1960s and many of the young people who grew up gazing at the stars are retired and looking for something to do, so why not use them?

  2. I love learning about space, so I really enjoyed this post. While I understand the need for NASA to keep certain problems secret for national security reasons perhaps, a lot of NASA’s research could easily be outsourced to brilliant minds willing to conduct R&D at much lower prices than NASA could achieve in-house. I understand why existing employees at NASA might feel threatened, and adopting open innovation to a greater extent will likely lead to fewer R&D jobs available at NASA, but as was mentioned in this post, a new type of job, that of a “solution seeker,” might be created in the process. At the end of the day, if opening itself up to open innovation results in the ability to take on more moon-shot projects and succeed, I would think this would be a no-brainer for the space program. (Especially in a time where science sees dwindling government funding!!)

  3. This post raised the potential issue of open innovation’s negative impact on NASA’s R&D culture. However, I wonder whether the opposite, open innovation’s negative impact on the public’s perception of NASA, should also be cause for concern. For example, the post mentions that some NASA R&D professionals “ignored the finding shared by the public”. If I found out that NASA did not act on my findings, I would come to view NASA in a negative light. I wonder if this is something NASA took into consideration and what exactly they are doing to set expectations on how they would act on public findings.

  4. I think it’s great that NASA is willing to crowdsource some R&D ideas – I’m sure it’s significantly cheaper, faster, and likely more effective than exclusively sourcing ideas from a small cohort of highly specialized individuals. However, one of the reasons that specialists come to work at NASA is that they have access to sensitive projects that aren’t otherwise publicly available. How can NASA balance working on cutting-edge projects that may have real significance to national security with opening up the R&D process?

  5. Few organizations have the capability and reach to make scientific strides like NASA. Tasked with the most difficult and abstract problems, I would want every tool at my disposal – including outside sources. I do understand the hesitancy to accept solutions from unproven, external sources. Outsiders have a freedom to develop solutions using their own methods outside of the prescribed framework in which NASA operates. Those within the institution may feel at a disadvantage needing to follow strict regulations and guidelines. However, I do think standard approaches and open innovation can coexist. The organization will likely need to reframe the external contributors as partners rather than competition. It would also likely help to get direct input from the engineers on how they think they can better utilize open innovation internally. While it may be difficult, I agree that NASA should continue slowly and steadily incorporating open innovation. Particularly in an environment where NASA’s funding is no longer considered a priority, the ability to incorporate open innovation could unlock significant value.

  6. There are lots of people that would love to work on a problem for NASA in their leisure time. The successful ones are likely good hires. Why don’t more organizations with high social influence – that can attract people to open innovation challenges – use this model as both a problem solving and hiring practice?

  7. Cool piece.

    The open innovation platform has already produced new capabilities and better science for NASA, and it seems smart for the agency to expand it in the future. The cultural concerns raised are duly noted and insightful. In addition to those, i am left wondering how government classification will limit the ability for open innovation to help solve the classified projects NASA is working on? Will open innovation be limited to only those projects that are public knowledge, or can NASA figure out a way to utilize the platform for more strategic and secretive programs?

  8. Great article. One interesting feature of NASA in particular vs. other organizations is that its work is simultaneously (a) incredibly complicated and challenging and (b) extremely exciting and inspiring (who doesn’t love the idea of sending things to space?!). As a result, I imagine it is relatively easy for them to encourage people to participate in their open innovation programs to feel connected to something as emotionally powerful as NASA’s mission (pun intended). I’m left wondering how other organizations that are working on equally important but less sexy projects could optimally position open innovation programs to encourage involvement from the broader public.

  9. Very interesting take on the effects of open innovation on a company’s culture. While I understand the concern of the longstanding employees, if Nasa does not explore the open innovation platform it will not be long before competition beats them to solutions to their toughest challenges. They cannot afford to have an R&D cycle of 3 to 5 years. We are now in a world where the capital investment required to successfully compete in the space industry is falling quickly. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, new space ventures received $1B in funding. New companies like SpaceX, Rocket Labs, and Virgin Galactic, have all successfully launched rockets into space. I agree with some of the comments above in that Nasa should evaluate what problems are most exciting for and best meant for its talented staff, and then ship out the rest under an open innovation model.

  10. Super interesting stuff! I am a big fan of open innovation and I’m impressed at the culture change that it has affected at NASA. I think open innovation and traditional R&D can exist together. A couple of key points is that in classified applications you obviously cannot have open innovation so you have to keep that internal R&D talent in house at the risk of competing for talent at critical junctures. Another point I had is that the examples you list are successful uses of open innovation but are there cases where the public just does not care or have the right expertise? Another thought is how much time has to go into separating the bad ideas from the good ones? How many marginal ideas get through the screen and then require personnel to go through and evaluate each one. How does that trade off compare to just doing it on your own?

  11. I appreciate your focus on the people-side of open innovation. One are of personal interest for me are incentivez, and I think that, in order for open innovation and standard R&D to coexist, NASA engineers need to collaborate with their open innovators. Stand-alone ideas are good, but imagine the progress that could be made if these engineers (both NASA-badged and non-affiliated) worked together. In order to do this, NASA may need to consider creative solutions and leadership to both help their engineers see the benefit of open innovation and help their engineers feel valued in an open innovation culture.

  12. I was surprised, and very intrigued, to learn about how NASA is using open innovation effectively. As an extremely specialized, high profile, and at times, highly secretive organization, NASA is not an organization that would immediately come to mind as a target for implementing open innovation. However, as the post articulates, open innovation has produced tangible, positive results. From my perspective, there are limited to no downsides to expanding open innovation opportunities at NASA in all ways possible and appropriate, pending any security or confidentiality considerations. Improving NASA’s processes and outputs benefit us all; and, if non-NASA employees are able to develop better solutions at a lower cost (similar to the semiretired radio engineer who developed at 25% more accurate algorithm than the NASA scientists), then those crowd-sourced/open innovation ideas should be given a platform to be expressed, and if justified through outcomes, pursued.

  13. Great post – I love learning about space! In general, I think the spirit of innovation relies on an openness to new perspectives and ways of approaching and solving problems. With this in mind, standard and open innovation models should and could work in the same organization. That sounds more difficult to manage from an organizational perspective, but tackling big problems through many approaches seems to be in line with the overarching spirit of NASA. I would encourage the organization to avoid formalization of innovation and let ideas come about however different teams feel they can reach them.

  14. I don’t think it makes sense to change the entire R&D process to open innovation and see a world where both processes can / must coexists with each other. NASA’s has a reputation for being cutting edge, but has relied on a standard R&D process to get it there. As the organization ages and the world becomes more technologically advanced, I think it makes sense to test out other strategies, such as open innovation, in order to maintain a competitive edge.

  15. While I appreciate the cultural struggles that are associated any dramatic change, I think it’s critical to consider both the changes to the R&D process and the potential coexistence of standard and open innovation in the context of NASA today and not in a vacuum simply considering the cultural frictional (that will accompany any change). Four contextual elements that I believe are important to consider when thinking about the potential R&D changes are i) the fact that NASA is a budget-constrained federal agency in the U.S., ii) the aerospace and, now, space travel industries are rapidly developing; iii) scientific progress has historically been achieved through collaborative vs. closed R&D approaches (including the partnerships noted by the author), and iv) NASA’s mission: “drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.” When considering these four ideas and thinking about this the successes from open innovation to date, such as the new approach to forecasting solar flares both with regard to accuracy and economics, I think it’s impossible to not read the tea leaves that change is needed with regard to the R&D processes. NASA must adapt. Without evolving, I don’t see how NASA will be able to stay truly committed to its mission. Forgoing the opportunities for more scrutinized, better, and faster solutions from open innovation seems counter to everything NASA stands for and thus points for whatever necessary cultural change might be required – as difficult as it must be – in order for NASA to remain relevant. I also believe there will be strong positive repercussions for NASA scientists as they are empowered with more information, brain power and overall resources. In short, the downsides are minimal relative to the potential upsides.

    As a tax payer that has watched the decline of NASA’s budget as a percentage of the total federal budget and believes in the many benefits of the organization brings to society, the embrace of open innovation is a no brainer. The only question is how to deal with the short-term cultural friction that will undoubtedly exist in the near-term.

  16. Very interesting perspective! I wonder about the efficacy of open innovation for solving problems as important and as complex as the ones that NASA is working on and how the real R&D professional at NASA feel about this. I agree that open innovation promotes learning and a differentiated approach – and in certain instances I think it’s very effective. But, to think that someone could contribute meaningfully to help solve actual “rocket science” seems somewhat far-fetched, and I would think the extra “noise” this creates in a NASA employee’s life at work would serve as more of an annoyance than a positive contribution – not to mention the privacy / security issues that might come along with this type of open forum.

  17. I talked to a NASA engineer about this topic and she made a great point. The innovation and hard work needed to advance our space-faring capabilities has a lot of exciting and fun parts everyone wants to be a part of, but it also has a lot of dirty work and paperwork which is also very important and in need of innovation, but less interesting from the open public perspective. These open innovation projects may also cause NASA to do a lot more of this dirty work and pull people within the organization away from other projects and give them less satisfaction. THeir takeaway was that there needs to be a balance in both original nasa scientist driven work important for the long term and open innovation led work.

  18. To answer the question “can standard and open innovation processes coexist in the same organization?” I would argue that NASA is probably one of the best examples of doing so over the last 100 years. Early space flight required intense abidance by physics-driven rules all while innovating new technology that would do so (and become a huge part of the recent technological revolution). I think NASA should looks to its past to understand that they were once the masters of open innovation, whether they know it or not.

  19. It’s incredible that the open innovation initiative was able to reduce the cycle time of NASA’s R&D process from 3 to 5 years to 3 to 6 months! A lot of the comments above have already touched on the security risk of enabling public access to previously internal information in an institution like NASA, but your piece also highlights a very interesting managerial dilemma: crowd-sourcing solutions, in NASA’s case, has undermined the employee value proposition that has attracted high caliber talent in the past. Extrapolating from what you mentioned in the article, many people join NASA despite a pay cut in exchange for the “right” to solve very important, complex problems, as well as the prestige that arises from the exclusivity of this access. Yet, there are likely other employees who embrace an open innovation model and welcome the ability to collaborate with individual problem-solves in the public. In light of this issue, I would add one more question for NASA’s management to your current list: if NASA continues to embrace open innovation, what changes do they plan on making – or not making – to their talent strategy?

  20. I think this is a very smart move on NASA’s part not only from an innovation standpoint but to manage costs in a time of funding uncertainty. If open sourcing is done correctly, it can significantly reduce R&D and overhead costs. It gives NASA greater control over the resources allocated to a given project and prevents costs from spiraling out of control with the hope that a breakthrough is just around the corner. In a time when NASA’s funding has come under fire, this is a step to mitigate federal support variability and continue to stay at the forefront of innovation regardless of the political climate.

  21. The threat of open innovation to traditional R&D roles is not one I had considered before reading your post. To be honest, I am surprised that NASA would continue to run traditional R&D given the effectiveness of their open source contests. As an American taxpayer and thus sponsor/beneficiary of NASA’s work, I would encourage them to rely more heavily on open innovation because of the benefits it can yield in speed & cost to otherwise hyper-challenging problems. Perhaps in the R&D group, they can “innovate” by adopting a hybrid approach that maintains regard for national security. Rather than release questions to the entire public, and give small awards, they can appoint a group of 100-1,000 “insiders” and share problems inside that community, offering much higher reward incentives for contributing. In an ideal world, they could even bring in these insiders to collaborate/hone ideas. This would hopefully improve the allure/prestige of participating in open source innovation, while also minimally impacting the time to solve problems.

  22. I believe that this is generally a bad move from NASA’s perspective for 2 reasons: First, it creates huge backlogs of ideas, analyzes and data that will demand valuable resources in order to filter and identify what is actually worth their attention. Second, standardization is key in very technical fields. When you host open innovation platform, you risk creating inefficiency and risks instead of innovation and disruption. In the end, would you let your kids embark on a crowd sourced space mission or would you rather have them on engineers that have been doing that for years?

  23. I think open innovation and NASA are a perfect match. As many others have commented here, I love the idea of space and space exploration. I think there is something very universally human about space and its unknown. Therefore, I think innovation around space exploration should be as democratic and inclusive as possible. Someone had brought up a concern of national security. The more NASA can position itself as a non-partisan, global organization, the more innovative it will be. To end on an inspirational quote: “one small step for man, one large step for MANKIND”.

  24. Fascinating article.
    I believe the estimates of open innovation efficiency, in this case, could be biased upwards since the challenges presented for crowdsourcing ideas might be easier and less complicated in the first place as otherwise, they would be too important to test for open innovation. The fact that NASA traditional R&D was less creative and less successful with their solutions can just point to the fact that engineers deemed these problems unimportant and not deserving enough effort, both mentally and timewise.
    However, I believe that crowdsourcing of ideas even for “toy problems” may have a very substantial impact on the breadth of ideas funnel at the very first stage. This approach of widening the ideas arena rather then increasing competition inside the arena could actually be well taken by entrenched engineers as they would be simply given free food for thoughts without compromising their professional superiority and alleviating most the security concerns.

  25. I enjoyed this post! One concern I have is security concerns around NASA’s work. Security will definitely play a major role around what NASA is allowed to crowdsource. For this reason, I believe they have to continue complementing their standard R&D process with open innovation.

  26. Super interesting. It’s great that open innovation has been able to empower more people to share their ideas at an organization such as NASA. As management at such an organization, I would want to make sure that a structure is in place to give equal weight to the ideas from various people. I would imagine that even following an open innovation process, hierarchy could play a role in determining which ideas to pursue. Another question that came to mind is whether ideas sourced from open innovation are more or less likely to be feasible and how would an organization filter for feasibility in order to avoid wasting time and money on projects with a lower likelihood of success.

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