by James Rinaldi

NASA’s New Innovation Mission

Jul 27, 20123 mins

This 2012 CIO 100 Award-winning strategy gets everyone in on space exploration

When I joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) seven years ago, I recognized it as a truly unique environment. Collaboration is a way of life here. I knew I had to make IT part of that culture.

We’re working on building an IT organization that could affect the lab’s ability to perform the scientific mission set for us by the country. We organized with a very talented team–including Deputy CIO Mag Powell-Meeks and my CTO, Tom Soderstrom–and we set out to change what “IT” stood for from “information technology” to “innovate together.” Our goal was to have consumers of IT have a say in how they receive services and technology.

The innovating together idea is about continuously identifying technologies, evaluating their relevance, and sharing prototypes with end users. It’s designed to transform IT from something that is done to you into something that we do together.

To start this transformation, we first had to do some education. The JPL’s missions are technical and complicated, and the folks in IT understand that. We needed others to be similarly understanding of the complexity of what IT does before we could determine what technologies and solutions are best for the lab. Users and industry partners need to be involved at every stage to make this approach work.

We emphasized that the collaborative spirit can be just as useful in finding IT solutions as it is in designing and building spacecraft and scientific instruments. We probably started with some of the hardest groups to convince, simply because they are trained to quickly identify obstacles, so we needed proofs of concept.

But we reached out to everyone from the start. We said to them, “Help us design a better solution by working with us from the beginning, rather than reacting to us at the end.”

With users from many parts of the lab involved, we can now rapidly prototype emerging technologies to meet mission needs in an internal, trusted environment. One example is the Aquarius mission, which is focused on climate studies. By working as a team from the start, we were able to quickly determine more efficient ways for users to collaborate within NASA and with their partners at the Space Agency of Argentina.

We’re building on the idea of consumerization of IT–where users are finding and testing solutions they like on their own–but making it part of an enterprise approach. By embracing this potentially disruptive trend, we’re able to look at all the pieces to determine what should be done. Because users within the lab represent a broad selection of workers here, people understand why decisions are being made. It’s no longer about mission groups going off on their own to find their own answers, or having to bow to IT’s strictures.

We in the IT group are becoming much more internal consultants. Our job under this new innovate together culture is to get the most out of what the technology market is providing through our expertise and our relationships with our users. I feel this is the best time to be in IT, and tomorrow is going to be even better.

James Rinaldi is CIO at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory–a center managed by the California Institute of Technology–and a member of the CIO Executive Council.