Friday, 11 January 2013

When knowledge in a manual is not enough - Apollo 11 example

Apollo 11 There was a very interesting documentary on Neil Armstrong on the BBC a couple of days ago, and in there was a great little story on the need for rapid knowledge when things go wrong, and the ineffectiveness of having that knowledge buried inside a thick manual. 

Here is a transcript of that section of the documentary.

BBC Narrator (talking about the Apollo 11 descent to the moon, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the Lunar Module)
Almost as soon as they started the descent, things started to go wrong 
 Charlie Duke, NASA CapCom (talking head, present day) 
As they went around the moon, looking at their trajectory, the bottom fell out. we started having communication problems, and data drop-out ...... 
Then as they descended towards the surface, the main computer began to raise a series of alarms 
Historical footage, voice of Neil Armstrong 
Program alarm! 
 Charlie Duke, CapCom (talking head, present day
And then we started getting computer overload alarms. That really shocked me, as it could potentially be a showstopper on the mission. 
 Historical footage, voice of Neil Armstrong 
Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm! 
 Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 astronaut (talking head, present day
Neither of us knew what 1202 meant. We knew where we could find the answer - but it was in a document about that thick (indicating with his fingers a book the size of a phone directory) and you had to leaf through it - and here we are halfway down to landing on the moon!!  
But luckily we had a bunch of guys back there on Earth - they could look it up! 
The team back at mission control found an answer in 23 seconds. 
 Historical footage, voice of backroom staff 
We are go on that, flight 
 Historical footage, voice of Gene Krantz (flight director) 
We are go on that alarm? 
 Historical footage, voice of Charlie Duke, CapCom 
 Roger, we are go on that alarm.  
Eagle, you are Go for landing, over.

A small moment in the history of Apollo 11, but a giant lesson for Knowledge Management. There's no point in providing Knowledge to people in a format which means that when they need it, they can't find it in time. However you transfer knowledge, findability is a key issue (see my 2010 blog post "you won't use it if you can't find it"). And if findability is not easy, give people someone to call who knows where the knowledge is.

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