Come Into the Cold: Computer Output to Laser Disk System Saves 13,800 Hours in Access Time

Implementation of a computer output to laser disk (COLD) system in 1996 saved a professional services firm 13,800 hours per year in time previously spent searching for payroll, benefits and human resources information on microfiche. In the past, clerks spent 30 to 120 minutes per day obtaining information from microfiche, primarily to answer employee inquiries. Jim Delaware, Operations Manager for Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc. (MMC), implemented a solution in which the information is downloaded each evening from the mainframe-based human resources system to a Windows NT server. From there, the information can be accessed over the network or used to burn CDs that are distributed to remote offices. A key factor in the time savings is a unique full-text search feature that makes it possible to locate individual records in seconds.

MMC is a global professional services firm with more than 50,000 employees and annual revenues of approximately $9 billion. It is the parent company of Marsh, a leading risk and insurance services firm; Putnam Investments, one of the largest investment management companies in the United States; and Mercer Consulting Group, a major global provider of consulting services. The more than 50,000 employees provide analysis, advice and transactional capabilities to clients in over 100 countries.

Need to Access Transactions

MMC currently runs the Genesys human resources and payroll system from Genesys Software Systems Inc. on an IBM 9672 series mainframe. While the current status of employees and payroll accounts can be viewed at any time through a terminal, MMC staff members frequently need to access transaction information.

For example, an employee might call with a question on their latest paycheck. Or, an employee might be retiring and the benefits department needs to know the salary history to calculate the pension. In addition, access to status information stored on the mainframe is frequently required by staff members in locations that do not have access to the mainframe.

For these reasons, MMC IT staff has long archived payroll, benefits and human resources information onto microfiche. Each evening, IT staff generated a tape that contained critical reports. These tapes were delivered to an outside vendor that produced a microfiche archive that came back three to four days later. There were also other problems associated with using microfiche. The microfiche tapes were easily damaged, and sometimes were even lost. In order to use the tapes, employees had to be provided with access to a microfiche reader. Users in remote offices often had to wait for a day or more to have the proper tape delivered to respond to an information request.

Over 10,000 Hours Spent Seeking Records

But the biggest problem with using microfiche was the amount of time required to locate information on the tapes. Finding a single payroll record could be a difficult task. The clerk had to first locate the correct piece of microfiche, then use the reader to view the report. It could easily take 30 minutes to find a single record. Because clerks in the payroll, benefits and human resources field spend a considerable part of their day responding to queries, the amount of time spent searching for information was substantial.

Delaware estimates that the 25 payroll and 10 benefits clerks spent an average of 30 hours per month trying to locate records on microfiche. The 10 human resources clerks spent somewhat less time, about 15 hours per month. The estimated total time required to perform manual searches is approximately 10,800 hours per year, or the equivalent of more than five full-time positions.

In an effort to solve this problem, Delaware originally began investigating optical disk systems. One drawback that he noted was that with this approach it would have been necessary to install optical disk readers at many of the firm’s offices that were connected to the network. Midway through his search, he saw a trade journal article about the Metafile COLD system from Metafile Information Systems Inc. that provides access to archival information over a local area network, intranet or on CD-ROMs.

Delaware liked the fact that the COLD system was capable of automatically downloading reports from the mainframe, eliminating the need to assign an operator to this task. He also liked its unique search capability that makes it possible to locate individual records in seconds. This capability should be distinguished from conventional full-text search features that take a long time to find records, because they do not create a full-text index file. Also, the index file created by Metafile is highly compressed.

Quick Implementation

Discovering that total implementation costs would be paid for in microfiche service bureau savings in two years, Delaware decided to purchase the COLD system. A support person from Metafile came in, installed the software and provided two days of training. He showed Delaware’s staff how to create report definitions and indexes.

The program works by reading the spool file and converting it to the compact, searchable file format that resides on the Windows NT server. Windows-based, menu-driven download software is used to manage the downloading of host spool files. The user simply specifies when and how often downloads should occur, which print queues should be used, and what should be done with the spool file once it is downloaded.

Rather than fully automating the downloading process, Delaware decided to initially assign a staff member to manually perform archival and indexing. This was because the current human resources software created a large number of test files that Delaware wanted to avoid indexing. No host code changes were necessary. At any time, he has the option of modifying the automatic report, or manually reaching out to the host and downloading a single occurrence of a report. Delaware also scanned several blank forms and imported them into Metafile so that the form now appears on the screen, and is printed along with the archived information.

Dramatic Time Savings

The next step was rolling the new system out to the user population. Over a two-month period, Delaware’s staff trained all of the clerks and installed the software on their PCs. The users of the system noticed immediate productivity gains.

Rather than retrieving and hunting through microfiche tapes, they can simply access the information over the network or on a CD. By simply typing in an employee’s name, they can locate the pertinent records using the COLD system’s search function. Search speed is fast, because the records are located either on hard drive or a local CD. Compared to the past, the clerks now spend a negligible amount of time searching for information to answer employee inquires.

"Once the clerk locates the record, they can print it out on a laser printer connected to the network," says Delaware. "Or they can use Windows software to fax it directly to the employee from their desktop. The client software is easy to use and has built-in security that allows us to restrict access to types of reports or even to individual pages. The documents are stored so compactly that a very large number fit on the hard disk of the Windows NT server. This gives us the ultimate in retrieval speed. We recently purchased a Hewlett-Packard CD-Tower that holds seven CDs to archive older files."

Increasing Archives Security

"The result is substantial time savings for the 45 users of the system," maintains Delaware. "By eliminating the need to manually retrieve records from microfiche archives, I estimate that we save the full 10,000 plus hours per year that were previously spent on information retrieval. These time savings easily pay for the cost of the software every month. Besides saving time, we have greatly improved the security of these important historical records. In the past, we ran the risk of losing a microfiche strip. Now, we can archive the reports as part of our existing backup process."

Soon, MMC will migrate from the mainframe to UNIX servers and implement the PeopleSoft ERP system for human resources, payroll and benefits applications. Delaware says that he expects this shift to substantially increase the firm’s use of the COLD system. "Once it has been accomplished we plan to create definitions and indexes for many new reports."

About the Author: Jerry Fireman is President an founder of Structured Information (Birmingham, Mich.), and has authored over 6,000 articles for the IT industry. He can be reached at