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NASA Enterprise 2.0 Expert: Graceful Failures OK

Kevin Jones is a consultant to NASA, famed for its "failure is not an option" approach to mission control. But he argues that social business teaches us to learn from our failures.

Kevin Jones sees part of his job as an internal social media consultant to NASA as convincing the space agency it is okay to fail. After all, social media is not life and death.

"I think NASA has taken on too much of the 'failure is not an option' ethos, at least in the areas I have dealt with," said Jones, who will be one of the keynote speakers at Enterprise 2.0 in Santa Clara, Nov. 14 to 17. "Failure is an option," he said, and we have to know how to learn from it.

As Space Race fans will know from film and history, "failure is not an option" was the commandment Mission Control Flight Director Gene Kranz gave to the engineers responsible for bringing the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft home from the Moon, against all odds. NASA has suffered some terrible failures over the years, such as the deaths of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia astronauts, each of which challenged the agency to do a better job of preventing a recurrence of those tragedies.

"There are good failures and bad failures," Jones said. "Either way, we need to learn from mistakes and react to them appropriately." Fortunately, social collaboration initiatives do not carry the life-and-death status of space flight--and a good thing, too, given how many of them fail.

Enterprise 2.0

"Sometimes it works, and sometimes it won't. When it doesn't, we need to continue on and make other plans and figure out what does work," Jones said. He was inspired to speak about his own failures and what we can learn from failure after a brainstorming session at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston in 2010. Although there are many great case stories of how social collaboration succeeds in the enterprise, he and his peers felt those examples "too often were sanitized and made it sound as if E2.0 was a panacea, and easy to do--which we of course knew it was not," Jones said.

Enterprise 2.0 initiatives need to be approached as experiments because even with the best technologies available, "what makes it work are the people," he said. You may need to try a few things before you come up with something that works for the people. That also implies you may never get there if you aren't willing to put up with the failures along the way.

[ What is the role of social media in life and death decisions? Read Hospital CIOs Turn To Social Media. ]

"A lot of time we are so scared of making a decision because we don't know what the outcome will be. We have to realize it's okay that we don't know what the outcome will be--in those situations where it's not life and death," Jones said.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard

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