Secret CIO sees lessons in Nasa’s latest misfortunes

Nasa's in trouble again. Between deliberate sabotage, inebriated astronauts and crazed, jealous lovers, the US space agency is under an enormous amount of pressure. (Hold on - I'll get to the Middle East angle soon.)

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By  Secret CIO Published  August 13, 2007

While the nappy-wearing exploits of one lovesick flygirl is old news, late last month the agency was rocked by new revelations, firstly that a subcontractor had intentionally wrecked networking equipment bound for the Shuttle.

Secondly, an internal Nasa report has uncovered multiple instances of astronauts engaging in "heavy drinking" before flights, and worse, astronauts have actually flown in the Shuttle while drunk.

This shows two things. First - astronauts are as human as the rest of us, and are willing to put the lives of their fellow crew-members at risk for a drink. Second, that Nasa's internal culture is seriously flawed. (Middle East angle coming shortly - promise.)

That an organisation such as Nasa - supposedly the leader in probably the most demanding field on Earth (or off it) - can miss issues such as inebriation and subcontractor problems is appalling but not, sadly, surprising.

After the Shuttle Colombia burned up on re-entry in 2003, killing all on board, investigations revealed a culture of rigid management practices and an unwillingness to speak out within Nasa. Those who recognised a potential problem were apparently too afraid to bring it up, fearing managers would look upon dissent poorly.

Fast-forward to the latest incidents - we see the same story. Staff were too cowed to mention drunk astronauts to managers - thus increasing the risk of yet another Colombia or Challenger disaster, and incidentally plunging the agency into some of the worst press it's had in its history.

"Huh, nothing to do with us," I hear you say. I beg to differ - Nasa's woes have everything to do with regional organisations.

Traditionally Middle Eastern organisations have followed the Nasa model - secrecy, no dissent, cover it up when it goes wrong. But Nasa's latest debacle should deliver a couple of messages to regional enterprises: One - that a massive, glamorous organisation in supposedly the richest and most successful country in the world can be a complete disaster, at least when it comes to management.

Two - that cultures of secrecy do not work, are not healthy, and will end badly. The comments of one of my fellow IT managers - GV Rao in last month's ACN - suggested that up to 80% of certain IT projects in the Middle East fail, and that this has more to do with the company culture than the products.

I'm not talking about full disclosure of every embarrassing detail here - neither am I suggesting you write to ACN to tell the editors about your organisation's latest screw-up. But developing an internal culture of debate and openness can definitely drive an organisation forward.

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