Peter Sayer
Senior Editor

Albemarle supercharges employee experience with federated automation

Case Study
Feb 06, 20238 mins
Application ManagementCIOCollaboration Software

One of the world’s largest lithium miners has taken a federated approach to automating business workflows with a bot strategy that provides self-service hooks into IT systems and beyond.

Patrick Thompson Albemarle
Credit: Albemarle

One of the first things Patrick Thompson (pictured) did on becoming chief information and digital transformation officer of specialty chemicals manufacturer Albemarle in 2017 was to introduce an annual survey to gauge employee attitudes toward services IT staff provides. Now he has a self-service bot delivering some of those services through Microsoft Teams, and providing real-time feedback on what employees want its help with, and whether they get it or not.

Albemarle is growing fast. Net sales have more than doubled in the five years Thompson has been with the company, and its goal is to double them again in the next five. One of Albemarle’s biggest businesses is producing lithium, the low-density, highly reactive metal that revolutionized phone and laptop batteries. However, demand for lithium is now being driven by electric car batteries, each one of which contains thousands of times more lithium than a typical phone battery.

Like other lithium producers, Albemarle is scaling up, and with new production facilities and expanding existing ones, the number of workers is growing, as are their demands on the IT department. Thompson’s annual survey has been key in matching resources to those demands.

“We measure three characteristics: people, process and technology,” he says. Employees rate on a scale of 1 to 4 the performance of the IT people that provide the service, the efficiency of the IT department’s business processes, and the technology IT provides — whether it provides all the necessary features, or is sitting on the shelf unused. Those scales, he adds, give great insight into what to do.

While headline numbers provide a helpful indicator of progress, it’s the detailed feedback that employees provided — such as requests for more self-service tools — that enabled Thompson to fix a poor score on the help desk.

“Some of the simplest things like password resets were requiring people to call in and get a person on the phone to make these changes, when they could easily be automated through a bot with a job aid,” he says.

While the initial need was to automate password resets, Thompson also had an eye on the future, and the possibility to automate other mundane tasks, perhaps avoiding the need for employees to log into particular software tools altogether.

In fact, Albemarle had already developed a number of job aids using ServiceNow and other platforms, but they couldn’t capitalize on it from a self-service point of view. “People were having to thumb through catalogs,” he says. “They couldn’t just ask a question and get an answer.”

Several of Albemarle’s existing software suppliers, including ServiceNow and Workday, offered bots that could respond to questions and automate workflows, but they were specific to those applications. “We really wanted a federated solution, something that could be independent of those, and then create APIs,” he says.

Buy before build

Thompson also briefly considered tackling things in-house and building their own bots, but that would have been very expensive. Instead, he settled on Moveworks, developer of a chatbot that integrates with a number of identity management, enterprise software and collaboration platforms.

Albemarle’s first application of Moveworks was automating password resets.

“Our help desk at the time was about a million-dollar budget, and we had about 45 external providers,” Thompson says. “We were wasting a lot of money on password resets and simple things that a bot should be able to do. We drove that down to $100,000 a year and reduced our tickets by 90%.”

The first implementation arrived just as COVID hit, and Thompson saw the number of colleagues working from home jump from 500 to 5,000 within a month. “Now all of a sudden, the self-service capability had to come faster,” he says. “Moveworks really helped us accelerate that.”

The potential for automating non-IT functions also became apparent during that time. “Everybody [was asking if they could] have a robot for HR, facilities and accounts payable, So all these other departments are now using Moveworks as well.”

Over time, Albemarle has enriched the capabilities of its bot ALbot to include federated workflow approvals, a move that’s also enhancing adoption of other platforms even though users now rarely have to log into them.

An exercise in consolidation

“We deal with a lot of different systems like SAP, Ariba, Concur, Workday, Salesforce,” says Thompson. “What Moveworks allowed us to do is federate some approvals so we can have one experience around approvals instead of having to log into multiple systems. They just get an approval request through the bot.”

Maintaining these isn’t placing an additional workload on the IT department either, Thompson says. He has an application management services agreement with Moveworks, and one-and-a-half staff supporting the platform from a technical perspective. For the rest of it, he says, it’s not about extra effort but leveraging what you already have, and pointing it in the right direction. By that he means ensuring that documentation, like training manuals or job aids, is available in a form ALbot can ingest, or devising processes that ALbot can participate in.

ALbot is helping in other ways, too. When an employee asks a question it can’t answer, the information is logged. “We’re constantly doing this root cause analysis: somebody asked a question and there wasn’t an answer,” he says. “We’re taking that data, categorizing it, and then sending it out to the right content experts and saying, if you answer this question, if you build some content we can point to, this will no longer show up in the queue any more.”

These days, some of that analysis is handled by ALbot itself, he says. “I don’t have to go through all the questions that the bot didn’t answer,” he adds. “It’s putting it in an analytic portfolio for me to give to the right managers.”

The bot has also helped the centralized helpdesk respond to the demands on it in other ways, as it can offer 24/7 support in multiple languages for the questions it’s been trained to answer. “We’re a global company,” says Thompson. “We’re completely covered around the world with the language capability. That’s another powerful adoption accelerator.”

Paths of progression

Thompson has learned some lessons about how automation can save time and cost from his work with ALbot, but his experience with automation — and with Albemarle — goes back much further. His first contact with Albemarle was as a CIO of the company that built one of its plants, industrial construction contractor Turner Industries. That role, and his work automating parts of Turner’s project planning process, earned him a place on the March 15, 1999, cover of CIO magazine,’s predecessor.

Over that long career, he says, 37 of the people who worked for him have gone on to land roles as CIOs, CTOs or CISOs. The part he played in their advancement is one of the accomplishments he’s proudest of, he says.

“I’m a big fan of investing in people, not only on a business level, but a personal level, and teaching techniques and skill sets to make those kinds of things happen. It’s the same playbook each time — a clear vision of basic IT transformation first.”

Thompson’s playbook has three chapters: First IT transformation, then business transformation, and finally digital transformation.

“First get your IT right: your network, infrastructure, security, collaboration tools, and cloud strategy,” he says. Then tackle the business side of things. The goal here, he says, is “One ERP, a single instance, with no code change, no custom code.” It’s also the time to “get your back office synergized, and payroll centers and accounting offices optimized.” The third chapter is digital transformation in customer excellence, the supply chain, manufacturing, and the back office. “Once people are taught that framework, and you back it up by aligning their performance goals with the strategy and empowering them to help enable that strategy, people want to do that,” he says. “They’re motivated. The playbook is there. It’s all in the execution.”