The story of how a Canadian librarian, Margot Brown, became Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank reflects not only the central importance of information and data in modern societies, but also the fact that, for nearly three thousand years, libraries and librarians have been intimately involved with knowledge and education.
The librarian profession was created, in the eighth century BC, when Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, created a library in his palace at Nineveh in Mesopotamia. Ashurbanipal employed a “keeper of the books” to catalogue thousands of literary and historical texts, dictionaries, mathematical tables, commercial records and laws, which were set out on Sumerian or Babylonian materials and arranged in order.
By the time that Ptolemy I founded the Great Library at Alexandria nearly five hundred years later, the profession had begun to attract some of the greatest scholars in the ancient world. Aristophanes of Byzantium, Aristarchus, Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes were among those who worked as librarians in Alexandria.
They became known as “the custodians of learning” and the connection between education and the management of knowledge has continued to this day. Libraries and librarians have evolved with the passage of time, adapting to technological advances, from the invention of printing in the medieval period to the emergence of ‘big data’ today. The challenges facing librarians, with the growth in demand for information and the development of new systems, may have changed, but the most important part of the role, facilitating knowledge transfer, has not.
Margot Brown is a striking example of the extent to which the role of librarian has of what someone in the profession can achieve. The Director of Global Operations Knowledge Management for the World Bank, she is a librarian by training who has grown into one of the world’s leading knowledge management specialists. She is also someone who understands the central and growing importance of knowledge management and transfer in modern economies.
She grew up in Canada and her passion for reading was what first sparked her interest in libraries and eventually knowledge management.
“I had a love of reading. As a child, once a week I would visit our local library, devour ten books and then get ten more,” she says. “I was a voracious reader.”
After finishing her Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, she went to work in corporate libraries, starting in professional services firms, then in government with the Canadian Centre for Management Development’s Information Centre (CCMD)
“CCMD was focussed on building talent. My boss was an amazing person and one year she went to the Special Libraries conference in Seattle. . She returned talking about this amazing start-up on the West coast called Starbucks and ‘we all need to invest in coffee.’ But she also came back talking about knowledge management and how we need ideas on how to support organisations and look for ways to tease out the hidden knowledge in repositories and people’s heads. . The concept really intrigued me and I spent a lot of time looking at this and reading the management literature. So, I started as a librarian but knowledge management took the job into a new realm.”
It was indeed a new realm. The arrival of the Internet transformed information, placing it at the heart of the modern economy and making it, in many ways, the world’s most important commodity. Effective knowledge management has become an essential requirement for businesses, organisations and citizens.
“It has always been important but we are now approaching it in a different way. Throughout history, an artisan with an apprentice was involved in knowledge transfer. But knowledge management is now more important than ever because the volume of information hitting us s so significant and we have new tools and skills to help us focus on what is important. Even individuals are managing their own knowledge, setting up filters, doing searches and so on.”
Margot’s career has led her to senior management roles, formulating the response of companies and organisations to the demands of the global knowledge economy. She has been variously the Executive Director of Knowledge Management Services with KPMG Canada, the Director of Knowledge Management at Canada Health Infoway, the Manager of Organisational Development at PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Managing Principal of MTS Allstream.
“I have worked in a number of organisations in both the public and private sectors,” she says. “I worked in consulting at both PwC and at Allstream serving mostly Canadian Federal government clients. One of the things that happened when I went to different organisations was that I saw the same challenges and problems. As a consequence, I could zero in on where some of the knowledge challenges were. I helped to transform knowledge management from an esoteric concept to taking practical decisions to implement changes in organisations and getting them to make significant differences in the way they work.”
She considers one of the greatest achievements of her career to have been the introduction of social networking at KPMG, which was “a fairly conservative firm” at the time.
“Having a global platform across different time zones and geography was very important. The initial reaction in our consulting firm, however, was ‘we don’t want people wasting time on social networking.’”
Developing the company’s social networking and building up a global platform with over 100,000 users helped to transform both outlook and performance. It was also highly instructional, in that it involved learning from pilot programmes and building success incrementally.
“It meant having the organisation understand that this was a channel for them to achieve their objectives.”
At Canada Health Infoway, she was responsible for supporting a major health information programme, TeleHealth, which showed her the enormous impact information and communications technology (ICT) can have on the lives of ordinary citizens. The project delivered health information, education and advice to people throughout Canada, including remote communities in the North.
It “allowed nurses and doctors to interact and to ensure that nurse practitioners had the best knowledge available to them.” The experience convinced her that the potential of ICT in both health and education is still enormous. “Technology enabled us to transform education and health care in the north of Canada… Fast forward to now and technology is permeating every aspect of life. It can transform how we learn, absorb and are exposed to knowledge.”
Technology, she believes, has the power to transform educational opportunity. “Access to learning opportunities today is unprecedented in scope thanks to technology. Massive amounts of information and knowledge are now available at the fingertips of anyone who wants to learn. And they can do it from anywhere in the world through MOOCs, podcasts, online degrees and certifications, and more.
“Technology is changing the way education is received and provided in many ways today. Students take more responsibility for their own learning, using technology to gather relevant information. And it is enabling new ways for people to learn and work together. As Internet connectivity improves, these opportunities will continue to grow. This is an immensely exciting moment to be alive and to be learning.”
However, the more the advance of technology continues, the more clearly she sees that knowledge needs to be curated and managed. It is the instinct of the librarian, perhaps, but nonetheless in tune with the opinions of many people who believe that learning doesn’t just ‘happen’ and that there will always be a role for the curator, the guide and the teacher.
“One of my concerns,” she explains, “is that I see more and more of a culture that is interested in ‘skimming the top.’ Very often now, it is about what someone is putting in front of you. Skilled educators and curators are needed.”
She believes that education is at the heart of enabling technology to achieve its full potential and she is an enthusiastic champion of the World Bank Group’s initiatives to support education and development. Of these initiatives, she describes the Bank’s ‘Open Learning Campus,’ which leverages a robust online platform to share expertise and knowledge with development professionals around the world, as the “jewel in the crown.”
“The World Bank is a huge believer in the idea that education is fundamental to education and growth. We are determined to do everything we can to extend opportunities. We understand the connection between poverty and a lack of educational opportunity.”
Margot’s suggests that her views on the importance of education in the modern economy come from her parents. “If you don’t have an underpinning in education, success is just based on luck and serendipity. My parents had a very strong work ethic and put myself and my two sisters through study for our masters and PhDs.” They would, no doubt, have shared their daughter’s view that “education is the foundation of success.” Margot believes that, in the modern economy, it is essential for coping with the “changeability we all experience.”
She has no doubt that “for reducing poverty, education is one of the most powerful instruments. Individuals need the underpinning of education. It helps in building a foundation to channel and ride out ups and downs in the economy. It is vital for taking on new skills in the workforce going forward.”
Huge challenges lie ahead. “We must consider that 263 million children and youth are still not in school, with devastating economic impacts… What are they going to do? They will be relegated to the most menial tasks… While global efforts and investments in education systems are helping increase the number of children in school, this alone is not enough. In today’s age with technological advancements and global competition, it is becoming especially important to invest in the acquisition of new skills and competencies for learners across the globe and in many sectors.
“To promote success in today’s labour market, we need to invest early in education, as well as in training for relevant skills. And because the environment is constantly changing, we need to continuously monitor and improve our efforts.”
In Africa, investment in education is a vital element in the World Bank’s plans to assist in transforming the continent and ending poverty.
“The World Bank wants to end poverty within a generation and to boost shared prosperity. Africa is a major focus of our efforts and investment in education is one of the primary tools for achieving both the Twin Goals and the UN’s SDGs.”
The World Bank Group is supporting, and investing in, African education through a number of major initiatives. One prominent example is the New Education Programme, which was launched in the Gambia in March 2018 with a grant of $35 million. It enables 400,000 children to access early childhood development (ECD), basic education and Koranic centres.This programme aims to improve the quality of teaching and learning outcomes from the lower and upper basic schools up through the senior secondary schools. There are many other examples
With the prospect of technology continuing to spread the benefits of education across the continent, Margot is optimistic about the prospects for Africa over the next twenty years.
She is in no doubt, however, on the importance of continuing to invest in education and training. “Economic recovery is underway in sub-Saharan Africa with the recovery of commodity prices, as global financing conditions have remained favourable and as slowing inflation lifted household demand. Regional growth is projected to rise to 3.2 per cent in 2018 and to an average of 3.6 per cent in 2019.”
“In order to ensure growth, it is critical that we continue investing in human capital. We also need to continue leveraging technological advancements to help generate jobs for African economies and provide the workforce with the skills and learning that they need to compete in this global market and be sustainable in the long term.”
Margot Brown will be a keynote speaker at this year’s eLearning Africa conference, which will take place in Kigali, Rwanda from 26 -28 September. Join us to discuss personally with her about new projects and opportunities in Africa.