Finding the Balance Between Collaboration and Security

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Collaboration and Security
“Our society has reached a point where its progress and survival depends on our ability to organize the complex and do the unusual.” This quote by former NASA Administrator James Webb is still relevant today. Technological advances ease our burdens, while creating new challenges. Today, we have access to instantaneous communication through a plethora of platforms and devices, creating an even more daunting task for humans to consume, analyze, respond, organize, and archive the information bombarding us each day.

We’re faced with increased need to collaborate simultaneously with colleagues (or citizens) located across the planet—and for NASA, above the planet. Inherent in the search for the right tool are competing and conflicting requirements by unique audiences, such as researchers, project managers, policy makers, or citizens.

Agencies struggle to balance the tension between those who believe in a one-size-fits-all enterprise solution for applications, tools, and platforms versus others who believe in federated tools and processes to support specific requirements. A case can be made for the one tool that rules them all, in terms of economies of scale; however, in an agency like NASA where the unusual is our operating norm, complex missions may warrant unique tools.


To complicate things further, once we decide on a collaboration tool, it has a limited lifespan due to shifting agency priorities and technological breakthroughs. The length of time it takes to approve an agency collaboration technology may render it obsolete as the next tool appears on the marketplace with better capabilities.

To add to the complexity of finding and adopting effective collaborative tools, the very act of collaboration across internal and external networks may trigger scrutiny. We’ve entered a new age of cybersecurity threats that, quite rightly, warrant hyper-vigilance on the part of all agencies. It introduces new questions about open collaboration operating models, which are now considered by many to be a significant liability to our agencies.

We’re faced with questions about where to secure the information border. At the federal level? Agency? Department? Individual? I’m not a security professional, so I can’t speak about what should or shouldn’t be done to protect networks and agency assets. I do, however, speak from the perspective of open innovation, open data, and information management. Our goal is to ensure information flows through our organization in a secure way so that the right people have the right information at the right time to enable well-informed decisions.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, often says, “The only safe rocket is the one on the ground.” That’s true of communication and collaboration technologies as well. The only safe computer is an unused one. It’s our job to assess the risks and determine the right balance between collaboration and security. Just like astronauts living in space, the digital world is an extremely high-risk, hostile environment. We need to develop creative ways to securely share insights so that we can continue to innovate as a community. I believe we’re up to the challenge.

About the Author

Beth Beck is NASA's Open Innovation program manager. Contact her at

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