Alicia Biggers-Gaddies is the Global Information Services Leader at the international specialty chemicals company Albemarle Corporation.
Alicia describes herself as a “solo operation”, providing information management and budgeting expertise to the company’s three core business units. She created an advisory council that supports her within those business groups and provides feedback on what is and is not working. Discover more about Alicia including her role, challenges and advice.
A day in the life of an information professional
There is never a typical week. That is what I like about the role. You come in with pre-defined, preconceived ideas about what your week will look like and then life happens, or work happens. And so, it changes.
The duties or tasks that I definitely have to get done are budgeting responsibilities. The global information services at Albemarle Corporation are funded through research and development or research and technology, and it is a shared service split between three of our business units. I am responsible for delivering information services to those three groups – everything else is complementary or adjacent.
We are 100% digital. And we do project-based, ad hoc and corporate objective-type work. I would say the services are probably 80% or more self-service, with 15 to 20% where you need our assistance. When I say our assistance, I mean me, myself and I. I am a solo operation. The three of us have dynamic conversations, but we get a lot done!
I do have a colleague in Amsterdam who assists with technical and patent searches, and he is a great asset for sure. And then, of course, I have the advisory committee. I lean heavily on the vendors for training, support, insight, briefings and reviews. We just do a lot of research which can be anywhere from patents to literature to everything in between. We do support commercial teams and will help them with market research or articles.
I went from a company that was over 200,000 to a company that is just a little over 4,000 people. The scale and dynamics are quite different, but it's also energising at the same time. I see a lot of nimbleness and growth. Given the size of the company, we are fortunate right now, especially being digital. It gives the flexibility that you do not need to ramp up on staff. Now, there would come a time and a place, if I grew this service the way I would like to have it, an additional researcher would be helpful, and maybe additional administrative support. But only being here three years and trying to stabilise the service, figure out where we want to go next and then start implementing those strategic plans, that is going to take a little time.
The greatest rewards of the role
The most rewarding aspect of my role is working with people. It's working with the scientists. I get pleasure out of letting them know that I'm not a chemist and some chuckle, then I say "Then you are not an info pro, but between the two of us, we are going to be highly dangerous." So, it is helping them figure out things. It is not so much, "Oh, I need access to this or that," but taking it to that next step and saying, "Okay, so you are asking for access to this. What are you trying to answer? What are you trying to solve? What is your end goal?".
And by inquiring about the specifics, I have great conversations, and everyone wants to share. A chemist will say, "Okay, I'm doing this project for this purpose." I might have somebody in supply chain procurement saying, "I need to negotiate a contract with this company for this product." It might be somebody in marketing saying, "We are looking at a new potential customer. A new potential market space. How do I understand that a little bit better?"
By having those conversations, I get to learn about the business, and I can start defining what those information needs are. It helps you then go back and look at that portfolio that we licensed and say, "Is this actually serving the needs of the people?" It is one thing to survey, and you do get a lot of good intelligence out of surveys, but it is another to have a focus group or ad hoc analytical focus group through conversations to say, "I need this," or "This works, but that does not." It's the people that really teach me and keep me coming back.
Adjusting to challenges
The typical constraints that every organisation faces are funding and technology. We all would like to have a never-ending budget, but that is not the case. So, the challenge is, how do you get the best portfolio within the budget that you have today? How can you sustain and grow that budget and make it flexible enough that if there is a recession or a downturn, can you contract but not kill? Contracting the services can be like cancer. Can you cure the cancer but not kill the patient? So that is a challenge. I haven't found a good formula, but that is a challenge.
The other challenge is working with IT. I'll give you a simple example – you want to do a training session and you want to record it so that people can listen to it later. Right now, someone has to approve it, but their workload is huge which means if I submit it today, the request may or may not be looked at until weeks later after the training session has concluded. If it is really important, you are going to escalate, if not, you are going to let it go. I am in the process of escalating because it is important.
Finding some of those roadblocks and then trying to figure out diplomatically and politically how to get around them or through them without burning bridges and still maintaining healthy relationships is challenging.
The other challenge is getting terms and conditions and licensing approved. That back and forth with the legal reviews between the two companies. That takes time and monitoring. I think if we can get something done within three months, we are healthy. And then once it is in place, if there is a minor update here and there, the process is easier. I tell people we are going through that sausage-making process, but in the end, we are going to have some lovely sausage for a dish!
The importance of marketing in the role of an information professional
I enjoy what I do, and I define the niche services that differentiate. So, I do not compete with knowledge management, records management or data science or similar services. I try to complement and supplement what they do. I want to be a partner and advocate. And when they come back and say, "Oh, well here's a partner and advocate," that builds a relationship there.
I am constantly talking to people and reminding people and following up. I'll answer somebody's research and a week later say, "Does this solve what you were trying to answer?", “Does this resolve it?", "Did you get access?", "Are you good to go?". Whatever it takes to make sure that I can connect with people. And it makes it easier on me, so it's not a massive workload, it's just a matter of leveraging the tools that I have. And especially even with the calendar, just reminding myself to do certain things and the notices come up to remind me, is beautiful.
Marketing yourself internally and the information services make all the difference in the world. Answering the questions, following up on time, timeliness, being proactive, and offering ideas all help. Offering opportunities for briefings or training with your supply partners is very effective. The supplier or vendor is happy because they were able to talk with people in the company. That is another aspect of putting yourself out there to show that you are that brand, you are the face of that service. You can be a “critical” centre to say you are helping the employees become more profitable for the company. And you do have to be able to map that, even if it's through a story. Maybe you don't have the numbers, maybe you can't tie that exact article to that exact product that went to that patent that went to that customer, but you could tell a story of how you got there. That can be priceless.
Adapting during the global pandemic
Prior to the pandemic, we were probably between 60 and 70% digital. Now, post-pandemic, we are 100% digital, and it is great. I had challenges of how to, “responsibly with care”, and let go of the physical. We still have many scientists who want and appreciate the physical collection. And I understand the value, but we just didn't have the space or the capacity to care for those physical items. So, I took a multi-prong approach. I allowed many of the researchers to adopt a collection or a book, and it was successful. That item became their responsibility. And then what was left, we reached out to the local universities. The physical collection wasn't even where I was, it was in Louisiana, and I'm in North Carolina.
We were able to work with the Louisiana State – LSU, which took a significant part of the collection. A portion went to the employees, a portion was donated to academia, and then the rest was donated to local booksellers people in the area. Some online journal sellers took what was left of the collection. And now we're 100% digital.
But one of the positive things about COVID-19, since I was new to the company, was that it allowed me to digitally go out and, cold call groups. A lot of them were struggling. "Okay, so what do we do? How do we keep group dynamics together?" I offered to show them that if given an hour, I can show them all the good stuff, and it really worked out well. But I had to put myself out there. And I'm not an extrovert traditionally, I've kind of become one over time, so I do have to go back and reset myself if you will. And the pandemic allowed me that time to rest actually, but at the same time, it allowed me to connect digitally. I will have to give kudos to the Albemarle IT team, they set us up beautifully. It was seamless with Teams and with all the tools, the streaming, the videos, everything. They did a phenomenal job, and I was one of those employees who took full advantage of that.
The downside of it is obviously the one-on-one connection with people. I had to make it a point to connect with teams and individuals with whom I had started relationships because I joined the company in July 2019 and by February 2020, we were at home. I really am amazed at those who joined the company during the shutdown. My heart goes out to them because I think there's a balance between being in-person and being online.
And even if with somebody, if they're traveling, say they're coming from Europe or for Asia, and they're here, I always tell them, "Schedule 30 minutes with me, let's have coffee". I just like to see their face and put a face to a name. And I was surprised how many people took me up on that, they loved it. And sometimes people don't ask. And I always tell people, "Don't be afraid to ask, you may be asking the same thing somebody else wants to ask, you just don't know it."
I also found out that a lot of people are concerned about speaking to somebody who might be two or three levels above them. One thing that pandemic did was humanise us all, that level set us all because you got to peer into people's homes, you got to peer into their everyday life, and then you realise that they're human just like you. People will connect with you, you just have to ask them.
Advice for your peers
I always tell people when they go into information services: you have to like people and you need to enjoy your job. You really do need to enjoy your job. There will always be challenges. I'm not going to underestimate that or sugarcoat it, there will always be challenges. But the question is, how do you approach it? Are you going to approach it with frustration and resentment? Or are you going to approach it with questions like how can I solve this? how can I go around, go through, go under, go over? and in what other ways can I handle this?
A lot of people, because they want to be of service, will overwhelm themselves and overburden themselves. You do need to understand your constraints, but then, also deliver. If we say we are going to do something, mean what you say and say what you mean. And as you grow through your career, you are going to be able to do more with less. Doing more with less allows you to re-evaluate and reassess what your portfolio is. And it may completely change, and it may not, but either way, it is not a bad thing.
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