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Daria Topousis on How NASA Built a Massive, Global Internal Community Program

Clarissa Redwine
December 12, 2014
April 2, 2024

When Daria Topousis started building NASA’s internal community, they had 10 field centers spread across the country: 10 different centers with 10 different cultures and missions. In addition, these centers competed for funding, not the best environment in which to build community.

The challenge was, how could NASA get these centers to collaborate and support one another?

NASA created the NASA Engineer Network (NEN): 25 communities of practice aligned with the core competencies of the agency. Over time, they grew to over 60. This was the result of a clear and simple approach. They identified center-agnostic leaders, appointed a facilitator for each community, and aligned each community with NASA’s core work.

When there’s a problem, NASA must address the technical as well as the cultural failures, so they’ve integrated a “lessons learned” system in order to get teams to learn from each other and grow the internal community. Changes in NASA’s mission demanded agility to meet new challenges. Daria explained the bold mentality of NASA’s internal community with the following quote: “Let’s do something that’s more cutting edge, something the commercial industry won’t want to do because of the risk.”

How did they implement this system?  

NASA had a meeting with the technical fellows, sifted through the people they met, and listened to key issues. Then, they brought core supporters into the communities of practice. This hands-on strategy involved winning over the internal community one person at a time. Gathering a core set of content and experts, NASA stared up a roadshow and let word of mouth spread. Daria’s team went from center to center sharing content from one to the next.

This movement didn’t come without challenges. Between each center there were cultural barriers and age gaps. Building trust online and keeping content fresh were also a concern.

NASA learned a few key things from their community building efforts:

  • When it comes to top down or bottom up, its about the AND not the OR. Both angles of development need to be fostered.
  • Even the most engaged communities need facilitation and everyone needs to know their roles.
  • Without management backing, communities of practice won’t succeed.
  • Leaders themselves must be recognized experts in the field and must be available to build community.
  • Be flexible and experiment.  From every failure you learn more about what your community wants.
  • Virtual communities will never replace face to face interaction and mentoring.

Currently, just two facilitators manage 60 communities, and Daria is making the case for more so they can expand their efforts.

Clarissa Redwine
December 12, 2014
April 2, 2024

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