European Space Agency

Corporate Knowledge Management and Related Initiatives at ESA

D. Raitt

Systems Studies Division, Directorate of Industrial Matters and Technology Programmes, ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands

S. Loekken*, J. Scholz, H. Steiner*

Management Information Systems Division, ESA Informatics Department, ESRIN, Frascati, Italy

* Siemens, Austria

P. Secchi

Product Assurance and Safety Support Division, ESA Directorate of Technical and Operational Support, ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands

The Agency needs rapid and convenient access to the data it possesses in order to efficiently reuse it and learn from it. Such data, which can be organised into information and thence transformed into knowledge, resides in many types of documents, databases, cabinet folders and files, as well as in the heads of individuals. Several studies in ESA are looking at ways to prepare the ground for greatly improved management of the Agency's knowledge and to define the required information-technology infrastructure.


It is claimed that organisations are not becoming more labour-intensive, material-intensive or capital-intensive, but rather more knowledge-intensive. Despite this, many of today's best-managed organisations remain negligent in administering and leveraging what is almost certainly their most valuable asset: knowledge. Effective Knowledge Management (KM) is fast becoming a very important strategic issue for both profit-oriented organisations competing in the market place, and non-profit organisations 'competing' against decreasing budgets, decreasing time lines and increasing effectiveness requirements. As a result, the last few years have seen a number of efforts addressing the problem of managing organisational knowledge, in theory and practice, under the umbrella concept of knowledge management.

Knowledge Management is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, managing, sharing, and leveraging all of an enterprise's knowledge and information assets, by continuously employing a set of policies, organisational structures, procedures, applications and technologies. These knowledge and information assets, often referred to as the 'corporate memory', include databases, documents, policies and procedures (i.e. 'explicit' knowledge), as well as previously unarticulated experience and expertise resident in individual workers' brains (i.e. 'tacit' knowledge). Knowledge manage-ment thus aims at leveraging the ability of the capable, responsible, autonomous individual to act quickly and effectively.

One of the policies which is to underpin the overall review of the evolution of the Agency is a 'science and technological policy aimed at improving human knowledge and stimulating economic development' (ESA Council Document (97)56). Knowledge - human capital or intellectual assets - is increasingly being viewed as one of the prime movers in any innovative or technology R&D programme and as one that provides competitive advantage. As the major driving force behind European space activities, ESA has acquired a vast amount of extremely valuable knowledge over the years in all areas of space research. Capturing, unlocking and sharing this unique knowledge, i.e. the reuse of existing intellectual assets, might be the strategy which could simultaneously reduce costs and 'time-to-market' and thereby help make the Agency's projects faster and cheaper. Furthermore, making such knowledge available in a more convenient and structured manner to industry, research institutions, national space agencies and other partners would constitute a valuable return on their investment for ESA's Member States. Management of the Agency's knowledge has also been identified in the ESA Information Systems Master Plan as having a high potential for increasing the Agency's collective efficiency.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Agency's explicit and implicit knowledge created in one area may potentially be needed and used in other parts of the organisation. Thus the accumulation and sharing of knowledge, wisdom, experience and insights would give ESA a powerful base with which to support its work. The problem is capturing it and distributing it for suitable reuse. Also, tacit knowledge is lost and wasted the moment employees leave the Agency, and it is likely that a vast amount of the explicit knowledge that is in all kinds of formats, media and locations is essentially 'lost' because it is mis-filed or because it is neither known about nor accessible by others who may be potential users.

Corporate knowledge management

knowledge management

Traditionally, information has been highly structured and stored primarily in data-processing and information-retrieval systems. KM differs from these information engineering approaches in that it aims at providing access not only to large-grained relatively unstructured information, but also to the people who create and use it. KM thus emphasises inter-personal communication over the mere capture and storage of knowledge. More importantly, KM also differs from traditional information management approaches in that tacit knowledge sources, i.e. an organisation's intellectual assets or capital, are a prime target of the knowledge-management efforts.

Central to the theory of KM is the conceptualisation of knowledge as a superior element in a value-chain, including data, information, knowledge, and sometimes even wisdom, and the conceptualisation of knowledge management as a process of refinement, leveraging data and information to the more valuable level of knowledge. This value-added hierarchy is based on a perception of value either in terms of applicability to problem-solving and decision-making (knowledge is that which enables action), or in terms of the asset's value on the balance sheet (capitalising knowledge resources, such as patents or innovation for creating new products).

As yet, no universal 'best practices' and no single technology or best approach for KM have emerged, which is not surprising given the relative youth of the field and the fact that today's KM efforts differ widely in scope and objectives. In fact, four main types of projects can currently be identified in real-world KM efforts.

One type of project aims at providing value-added knowledge repositories. The goal is to capture knowledge, typically from documents with 'knowledge' embedded in them - memos, reports, articles, presentations, and so on - and store them in a repository where they can be easily retrieved. Another, less-structured, form of 'embedded knowledge' can be found in topical discussion lists and bulletin boards. This approach also entails the important process of capturing and representing the content of people's minds, such as tips, tricks and insights related to a particular topic. Typical enabling technologies in this context are data warehouses containing such value-added information as 'lessons learned'.

While capturing knowledge is the objective of the knowledge repository, another type of project focuses on providing access to knowledge or facilitating its transfer among individuals. These projects recognise that finding the person with the knowledge one needs, and then successfully transferring it from one person to another, is a difficult process. The efforts in this category are therefore focused on connectivity, access, and transfer, and the technology enabler often includes Yellow-Page-type (YP) 'road maps' to the tacit and explicit resources of the organisation, or groupware for supporting the communication between individuals.

A third type of KM project involves attempts to establish an environment conducive to more effective knowledge creation, transfer and use. Projects in this category typically aim at building awareness and cultural receptivity to knowledge, changing the behaviour associated with, for example, knowledge sharing, and improving the KM process itself.

A fourth type of project focuses on managing knowledge as an asset. One way this is being done is by treating knowledge like any other asset on the balance sheet. The Swedish insurance giant Skandia, for example, makes an internal audit of its 'intellectual capital' every year and includes this in its Annual Report. Another approach to knowledge asset management is to focus on managing specific knowledge-intensive assets more effectively to improve their return. An example is Dow Chemical's KM effort, which reportedly saved $40 million in its first year through better capitalisation on the company's patents.

Knowledge management enablers and barriers

Successful knowledge management, just like any management practice, requires a set of supporting organisational conditions. One enabler is the technology needed to provide enterprise-wide delivery, distribution, and integration of digitally encoded content, and support for the tacit knowledge transfer and sharing that take place in communication and collaboration. However, IT is only one of several enablers or factors to be considered; others include corporate culture, leadership and measurement.

Since the cultural traits needed for KM efforts are often at odds with the existing reality of hierarchical and conservative organisations, it may be necessary to actively change the organisation's culture. For example, since tacit knowledge is only accessible if the human is ready, willing and able to share it, one needs a corporate culture that promotes knowledge-sharing in a climate of trust and openness.

The leadership enabler consists of the will and decision-making required from top management to promote and support the KM effort as a top-level strategic goal of the enterprise, with individuals hired and compensated for their measurable contribution to the development of organisational knowledge. Furthermore, management cycles require self-corrective action and must therefore be able to monitor and measure results. One obvious measurement activity is to link KM efforts to financial results.

There are, of course, several barriers and stumbling blocks which can make the uptake of a corporate KM effort difficult. These are largely political and cultural rather than technological, with internal political conflicts and power struggles often inhibiting knowledge sharing among members of the same enterprise. Also, if individuals feel they can get ahead in their organisation by hoarding knowledge, the necessary cultural change will be difficult to implement. Misconceptions about the real issues, value and approaches of KM may also prove an obstacle. In particular, KM is often confused with document management, and the fact that most knowledge circulating in an organisation is never captured or documented is overlooked.

Problems related to the technology enabler are not restricted to technical issues, but also involve the way in which the technology infrastructure of an organisation evolves. In particular, a lack of coordination of IT-related efforts can result in incompatible 'information islands', whereby data and information that should be shared (i.e. corporate data) is not available to users across the various functional domains of the organisation. It must therefore be recognised that KM is a corporate undertaking and that a top-down approach to coordinating the various IT developments is required, in the form of defining and imposing policies for standardisation and interoperability among applications and content.

The importance of KM to ESA

Two issues of critical importance to an organisation like ESA in a time of downsizing and restructuring are increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of their staff, and making the very best use of their knowledge, experience and talents. An increasing amount of the work performed internally is knowledge and information intensive, and by focusing on knowledge sharing the Agency's highly skilled staff will not only gain ready access to knowledge and experience in their own domain, but also to knowledge and tools elsewhere in ESA that they previously may not have been aware of. Developing a better corporate memory for the Agency and actively managing its existing knowledge would therefore: enhance knowledge transfer and use; foster greater cooperation; stimulate creativity and innovation; help in managing expertise; reduce unnecessary duplication and wasting of resources; permit better monitoring and control; and generally increase efficiency.

In the context of downsizing, KM can help to prevent knowledge loss resulting from staff leaving the organisation and taking their knowledge and expertise with them. It also has an important role to play in failure management. System or subsystem failures are one of the largest sources of unforeseen costs in aerospace projects, and they can often be traced back to poor decision-making under cost/schedule pressures. The underlying cause for such human error is often lack of knowledge, or the lack of immediate access to knowledge. In this same context, KM can also provide some protection against the repetition of previous mistakes.

The ESA infrastructure for KM

In some respects, ESA has always had a 'corporate memory'. The thousands of documents that have been produced with respect to the many programmes and projects worked on have been kept and archived,and many of the staff involved in these projects who have accumulated a vast amount of experience and knowledge are still with the Agency. The problem is that the material itself and the knowledge that the staff have accumulated is presently not in a convenient form for consultation, analysis and reuse. The Agency therefore needs to create a seamless, value-added IT environment which builds upon available knowledge and lessons learned, supports existing platforms and applications and enables users of the knowledge environment to access a 'one-stop store' of information and data, both historical and current. The main IT objective therefore becomes one of providing an ESA-wide information systems architecture of compatible applications that can integrate and deliver this content.

This environment must in essence deliver three main services. Firstly, it must provide repositories of value-added information, applicable to problem-solving and decision-making. Second, it must provide information and knowledge 'road-maps', enabling access to all the existing and previously isolated resources in the organisation, including the accumulated knowledge and experience of individuals. Finally, it must provide the necessary support for tacit knowledge sharing. The core components for a KM application environment able to meet these goals are: value-added repositories in the form of 'data warehouses', meta-databases such as Yellow-Page-type directories and meta-servers, and finally groupware applications such as Lotus Notes. These elements are further explained in the accompanying panel.

Developing the application environment

In order to arrive at the integrated application environment providing access to the information and knowledge sources of the Agency, the YP and value-added applications that are key to KM must be developed and populated. In addition, a set of policies and procedures related to the use and evolution of the resulting information spaces must be defined and institutionalised.

The first activity that must be tackled is a detailed survey of all existing knowledge and information resources, tacit and explicit, within the Agency. The result of this activity, often referred to as the Enterprise Knowledge Architecture (EKA), is an important first step because the application environment depends on it: important content will go through a process of refinement and populate the value-added repositories, other elements will simply be referenced by the YP directories. The explicit information resources must be identified with a survey of at least the machine-readable databases (e.g. full text, factual, numeric, bibliographical, directory, multimedia etc.); printed material (e.g. the company library, archives, journals, grey literature, etc.); audio/visual collections (e.g. photos, videotapes, recordings etc.) and the like.

Identifying and capturing the accumulated tacit resources of the Agency may entail much more complex and time-consuming knowledge elicitation methods, such as interviews with senior and key staff. Clearly, detailed knowledge elicitation, which is hard enough with one expert in one narrow domain, is probably not feasible on an Agency-wide scale, but detailed representations of tacit knowledge can also be substituted by competency-maps, providing simple pointers to the individuals who possess key knowledge.

It is also important in developing the application environment to ascertain just how the identified and captured content might be most efficiently used for problem-solving, decision-making, etc. and hence what kinds of output might be required. It will also be necessary to address such technical issues as: the problems of data and knowledge validation, the projected growth of the database, the updating of its contents, legal aspects such as copyright, company confidentiality, proprietary data, and the security aspects. Given the rapid growth to be expected in the Agency's KM repositories, procedures aimed at enabling those repositories to 'forget' are crucial in order to make sure that only the latest information is available and that obsolete information is removed, since a repository with outdated content would quickly lose its practical value.

value chain knowledge management

Current KM-related efforts within ESA

The activities outlined below, conducted at ESRIN and ESTEC, can all be seen as providing important inputs for identifying and setting up an appropriate KM application environment for the Agency in the coming years. Several knowledge-based studies are also currently in progress at ESOC.

Knowledge Data-Warehouse Study
A small pilot study carried out by Moreton Hall Associates for the Systems Studies Division at ESTEC at the beginning of 1997 was helpful in defining many of the kinds of documents and databases that the Agency possesses and in attempting to categorise the kinds of information and data embedded in them. It also highlighted some of the problems of knowledge and decision capture and many of the issues surrounding corporate memory development and the culture/environment required to foster and sustain such a concept.

Based on the outcome of the Moreton Hall study, a more ambitious undertaking by the Systems Studies Division aimed at laying the foundations for developing a concept for a data warehouse that could be used by ESA staff, industry and the national space agencies is in the advanced definition stage. The new effort does not seek to duplicate existing activities, but rather to complement them by identifying other types of data that could form part of an overall ESA knowledge-management and corporate-memory strategy.

The data warehouse could comprise different types of information and data from a variety of sources: published documents, grey literature, tacit knowledge, lessons learned, experience acquired, decisions taken, etc. It could also include information on pertinent system/subsystem equipment for projects, e.g. components, power supplies, propulsion systems, and what testing they have been subjected to, previous in-flight performance data, etc. The grey literature might include such documents as project specs., change records, design and test review results, enquiry board results, etc.

A further goal is to examine the methodology and procedures for extracting, structuring and searching the data, as well as exporting it to other systems.

Ultimately, the appropriate tools for ESA will depend on the type of data to be extracted and stored, the types of questions likely to be posed, the types of analyses expected to be performed, and the degree of compatibility required within ESA's data-warehouse environment (in particular the Lessons Learned Information System being constructed by ESTEC's Product Assurance and Safety Department) and other relevant systems or databases (e.g. those of the Cost-Analysis Division at ESTEC).

Corporate Knowledge Management Study
ESRIN's Management Information Systems Division, together with Siemens Austria, has a study in progress entitled 'Corporate Knowledge Management Study', as a follow-up to an earlier ESRIN study on 'Generation of Hyperlinks for Large Collections of Documents'.

Phase-1 of the latest project focused on understanding the real issues in the young field of corporate-knowledge management, and on clarifying the role and potential, but also the limitations, of information technology. Eighteen real-world KM efforts were analysed (some originating in the aerospace sector) to understand both the success factors and barriers. This phase also served to identify which tools and technologies are ideally required for knowledge management, what is required in terms of IT infrastructure, as well as listing those elements of an IT strategy critical to a successful KM technology implementation.

Phase-2 of this study will result in a detailed proposal for the application of information technology to an existing ESA knowledge cycle, outlining the methodology, infrastructure and requirements by November 1997. The prototype's implementation is expected to be finalised by December 1998. A knowledge cycle related to the Agency's Technology Research & Development (TRD) activities is currently being targeted.

ESA Lessons Learned System
After the successful implementation of its ESA Alert System, which facilitates the urgent exchange of information to prevent the repetition of identified spacecraft failures, the ESTEC's Product Assurance and Safety Department has undertaken the development of a system with a broader perspective. This system, known as ELLS (ESA Lessons Learned System), is intended to extract the useful lessons learned (both positive and negative) from past space experience and make them available to those who may benefit from such knowledge for future projects. In particular, ELLS is intended to:

Sources of information within ESA include the project and support staff, Alerts, Audits, project documentation and ESA publications. External sources can include staff of and documentation from other space agencies and industry. Consistent sharing of lessons learned should enable managers to recognise and respond to both good practices and potential dangers. The expected beneficiaries of the system include the Agency's project and functional-support staff, the national space agencies in Europe, as well as the industrial contractors involved in ESA projects. The latter have already shown great interest in providing data based on their own experience and in exploiting the system for their own needs.

A study for a pilot implementation of ELLS is currently being conducted, covering the definition of the process for the collection, validation and exploitation of lessons learned. It also covers the development of a tool to make the information available to users via the World Wide Web, as well as to support ESA's administration of the system.

At present, the User Requirement Document for the ELLS computer-based tool is being finalised. The software application and the operational procedure are expected to be ready by the beginning of 1998.

In-Flight Experience Study
Another activity that can be classed under the general heading of corporate memory or KM is a study to be carried out as part of the General Studies Programme on the topic of feedback from satellite in-flight experience to satellite design and margin concepts. European space industry already has a sufficiently long list of successful scientific, applications and commercial satellites to its credit from which much experience and many lessons learned could be extracted and put to good use in future satellite design efforts in order to be able to compete even more effectively on the world market.

This study, led by the Systems Studies Division at ESTEC, is presently in the early definition stage. Part of the task could be to build up an 'as-flown' database on as many European satellites as possible, containing such data as in-orbit performances, in-flight anomalies, trend analyses of critical parameters, etc. Such a database would be a useful addition to ESA's corporate memory and one that could potentially yield a high return for European space industry if constructed and used in the correct manner.


Knowledge management is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, managing, sharing and leveraging all of an enterprise's knowledge and information assets. These assets, often referred to as the 'corporate memory', include explicit resources such as databases and documents, as well as previously unarticulated 'tacit' experience and expertise resident in individual workers. It is generally accepted that successful KM efforts require certain organisational conditions, related to culture and to leadership as well as to information technology.

KM has been identified as an issue of considerable importance in many forward-thinking organisations, and ESA too can benefit greatly by adopting such a strategy. This article has given a brief introduction to some of the current activities within the Agency that are focusing on providing the technology needed for managing its corporate memory. These efforts should eventually lead to the building of several pilot applications involving Yellow-Page-type directories and value-added space-knowledge repositories in the form of Data Warehouses. Such a knowledge-management environment of accumulated wisdom, insights and experience would provide the core of an ESA corporate memory and would give the Agency, as well as European space industry, an extremely powerful tool with which to support its future and enhance its competitiveness. It is clear, however, that reaching the goal of creating such a KM environment requires significant coordination and standardisation of all of the corporate-level IT efforts throughout the Agency.

Value-Added Repositories and Data Warehouses
A 'data warehouse' is a repository of operational data from many sources which has been extracted, filtered, consolidated, summarised, formatted and optimised for presentation in ways conducive to analytical thinking. The purpose of the data warehouse is to provide decision-makers, such as scientists, engineers, or managers, with timely information for making critical decisions. Its content should include lessons learned and salient knowledge or understanding gained by experience. The experience may be positive, as in a successful test or mission, or negative, as in the case of a mishap or failure.

Meta-databases: Yellow-Page Directories and Meta-Servers
Whereas data warehouses are repositories for value-added content, the role of meta-databases in the KM context is rather to provide information about, and a common entry-point to the heterogeneous knowledge and information repositories of an organisation. They therefore serve as detailed directories to what is available where, by providing descriptions of data elements and incorporating related contextual information.

Meta-databases for KM are of two types, Yellow-Page-type (YP) directories and meta-servers. The YP directory is in essence a navigational guide to the organisation's information and knowledge resources, and is frequently used to create exhaustive 'road-maps' to all of those resources. Given that the capture of tacit knowledge can be hard and costly, YP directories often point to individual people as important sources of knowledge.

Whereas a YP application provides a directory of heterogeneous resources, the meta-server provides in addition a common interface for access to the contents of these repositories. Its distinguishing characteristic is that it must provide interoperability among the heterogeneous applications it encompasses, at the Application Programming Interface (API), syntax and semantic levels.

While the above systems and functionalities focus on providing enterprise-wide access to and integration of knowledge and information repositories, groupware is important to the KM objective of supporting tacit knowledge sharing and transfer within the organisation. The role of groupware is to assist groups in communicating, in collaborating, and in coordinating their activities, whether via phone, e-mail, discussion databases, bulletin boards, voice mail, etc.

Lotus Notes is a typical component of many KM-initiatives reported in case-studies. Access to knowledge repositories can be provided through the Notes databases, communication and limited collaboration provided through the messaging facility and associated databases and add-ons, and the potential for resource directories in the form of Yellow-Pages is supported by the distributed database architecture.

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Right Left Up Home ESA Bulletin Nr. 92.
Published November 1997.