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Local Networking and Overseas Data Links Employed By GMC's Environmental Staff.

A terminal on every employee's desk. That's the near-term goal of General Motors Corporation's Environmental Activities Staff (EAS), a 180-person unit that already boasts a nearly one-to-one terminal-to-employee ratio.

But omnipresent terminals aren't what makes EAS's office system fascinating. Rather, it's the communications strategies EAS management has adopted to meld those desktop devices into an integrated office system. Networking not only lets EAS staffers readily share information and resources with their own group, it permits them to communicate almost instantly with GM colleagues in offices from California to Germany and to tap into the data bases of many of GM's 58 scattered corporate mainframes.

The Environmental Activities Staff, based in Warren, Michigan, is responsible for coordinating worldwide GM efforts related to vehicle safety, auto-emission and noise control, and manufacturing-plant pollution control. Intra-office and interplant communications must be swift, accurate and efficient if the division's staff--75 percent in professional and technical positions--is to provide the required technical support.

"Our main office-system priority was to leverage staff skills," says Mike Flynn, manager, EAS office information systems. "In the past seven years, EAS's staff has shrunk from 450 to 180 people. Primarily, that trimming occurred before the new system was installed, due to organizational maturity and the hard economic realities our industry faced in the 1970s. Recession, however, did not slow US environmental legislative activity, and the rest of the world has begun to show equal regulative fervor. That means we must do more work than ever with a very lean staff.

"To meet increased demand for services, we needed a totally integrated office system that would let us make the most-effective use of our headcount," he continues. "We weren't in the market for standalone 'automation' solutions, which don't really address professional and management productivity. Also, since we're just one small component of GM, we recognized that the network solution we picked wouldn't necessarily suit other divisions. So we had to have gateway communication processors to interface with other systems and computers."

With these guidelines in mind, EAS established a Xerox Ethernet communications system as its internal network mainstay. This local-area network (LAN) currently supports some 166 Xerox 820-II and 16/8 personal computers, 20 of the vendor's 8010 Star information systems (professional/graphics workstations), six of its 860 information processing systems, a Kurezweil optical character reader (OCR), plus two laser printers, three electronic file servers and a communications server.

Communications beyond EAS confines are handled in a variety of ways. For example, the LAN's internetwork routing capability recently was tapped in a pilot project that has proven the feasibility of international communications. German Plant Installed a System

For this pilot project, a GM design and manufacturing plant in Adam Opel, Germany, installed its own small Ethernet system. Then, internetwork routing was used to relay complex text and graphics between EAS and Adam Opel. The users simply dialed into GM's worldwide voice communications system.

"My group is responsible for the continuous updating of GM's Worldwide Vehicle Regulations Manual," says Bob Szydlowski, director, international regulations. "The five-volume manual tracks regulations related to vehicle-emission, noise and safety requirements in every country in which we operate, and provides design and manufacturing rule interpretations for plants worldwide. In an era of fierce international competition, it's essential that our designers and engineers in, say, the US or Brazil know what regulations apply if they're building automobiles for export to Saudi Arabia.

"The Adam Opel pilot project proved the feasibility of collecting international data electronically for analysis and compilation here," he adds. "In the future, this capability may make it easier for GM units overseas to avoid duplicating our engineering efforts. In many cases, this is especially important because engineering talent is in short supply."

Given delays with paper-based communications, each international unit needs its own staff to collect, format and analyze information, Szydlowski explains. But this information must be reformatted and re-analyzed after it reaches EAS, since the regulations manual provides comprehensive rather than single-country design rules.

However, if electronic communications were established, EAS could eliminate the duplication. With international electronic mail providing immediate access to new regulations, the compilation of interpretations could be centralized. What's more, the comprehensive results could be relayed back to contributors almost as quickly as individual staffs in Adam Opel and other plants could piece together their single-source data.

"Without electronic input, it's impossible to run less than six months behind on updates of the manual," Szydlowski says. "With electronic communications, I'd be surprised if we ran a week-behind."

Both Mike Flynn and Szydlowski characterize the pilot project as a success.

"The pilot demonstrates that it's technically feasible for two organizations separated by 6,000 miles and a seven-hour time difference to use electronics to exchange both text and formatted graphics," says Flynn. "Now we have to assess the time value and productivity gains in doing so. We're in that review process. If we proceed, we'll do some network fine-tuning and probably use GM's existing data communications network rather than its voice communications system." Domestic PCs Tied to Mainframe

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Phil Doolittle is one of several development engineers in EAS's automotive safety engineering group who use modems to interface their 820-II personal computers to another division's mainframe that's running a storage and information-retrieval system.

"With the modem, I can convert my desktop computer into an on-line terminal and access a large data base that's been compiled over the past 10 to 15 years," says Doolittle. "Running this software, I can feed in either a safety-standard number or key words and subjects to query the data base for interpretations, government statements and other text. Of course, in the time that we've had our system, we've contributed a lot of new material to this corporate data base. For instance, EAS has scanned thousands of paper documents with our OCR and transmitted them to the data base."

While the interface provides Doolittle's group with systems flexibility, access to personal computers offers capabilities that staffers would lack with time-sharing terminals. "i use word processing a lot," Doolittle says, "and write BASIC programs to handle various calculations. Other group members use spreadsheet analysis and data-base management applications as well."

For individuals on the EAS network, however, having a modem directly attached to a personal computer isn't a requirement for external communications. Barbara Sullivan, a scanning and communications specialist within the office information systems unit, explains that network users can simple send their external correspondence to special mail folders on a central file server, which consists of a large disk file controlled by a dedicated small computer.

These folders are checked every few hours by Sullivan and other staff members, and the contents are relayed to the correct destinations. The central staff also checks "mail drops" on 11 other GM systems (such as the Industry and Government Relations systems in Detroit and Washington) on a regular basis for incoming electronic mail.

"We can communicate with other systems and stand-alone terminals using a variety of protocols, including TTY, 2770, 3780 and Ascom," says Sullivan. "For instance, EAS liaison staffers in Washington, DC, and California have mail folders, and they call us using modems attached to their personal computers to collect mail from several sources.

"We've also established mail folders for our phototypsetting system," she continues. "But our most unusual mail folder is for service requests. We ask all users to relay their service requests to us, so that we can track maintenance and repairs centrally and coordinate service."

George Blass, an emissions liaison engineer with EAS's automotive emission control group, has worked with Sullivan on a number of communications pilot projects and experiments. Blass is serving as staff project manager on an electronic document exchange program.

Blass explains that most network systems connect word processing and graphics workstations. However, the LAN used at EAS primarily links personal computers, since professional users who need data-base, spreadsheet and business-graphics capabilities predominate. Xerox's shared interface unit (SIU), which can make any of its computers Ethernet-compatible, is particularly helpful to these PC users.

"Before we began installing SIUs, we linked some PCs to the network by modem," says Blass. "But because many users didn't have modems, the only way they could use electronic mail was through community rooms equipped with either 860 or Star workstations. Users had to walk to them and sometimes queue up to get machine access. The SIUs eliminated this problem, and we decided to install them on every personal computer at EAS to give everyone desktop network access."

However, since SIUs only provide synchronous communications, a central electronic-mail facility will continue to serve the estimated 20 percent of LAN users, primarily project managers and individuals working with financial and technical data bases, who frequently need external access. EAS is continuing to experiment with new software to improve the compatibility of data exchanged between different systems.

Of course, for 80 percent of the EAS staff, communications on the local network is the primary concern. Here, electronic mail and access to shared resources have helped redefine the jobs of engineers, lawyers, technical specialists and other professionals, boosting individual efficiency between 15 and 600 percent. EAS calculates the average efficiency gain at 35 percent, a figure that translates into more than $1.26 million in staff time savings and cost avoidance. Paper Files Are Not Missed

Willis Brown, assistant analyst in the international regulations unit, is one professional who has no desire to return to the days of paper files. He is part of a five-person group that prepares country reports and summary tables on a monthly basis to keep GM designers and engineers worldwide posted on new regulations. Part of the job is determining inspection procedures to ensure compliance and rule applicability to different types of vehicles--buses, cars, and trucks.

"With our personal computers, we can access our relational data-base," says Brown, "which could be stored on a central file server. The data base not only lets us automatically generate the necessary summaries and tables in a variety of formats for different plants and divisions, it also lets us quickly answer field queries. None of us has the luxury of working exclusively on one subject or vehicle design month after month. So, when I get an inquiry on a regulation I may have reviewed three months ago, it's easy to forget whether it had objective design consequences or not. In the past, that meant a lot of paper research. Now, I can query the data base and find answers in seconds."

Within the plant-environment department, Phil Gerwert, who oversees a water-pollution--control group, is equally enthuisastic about network access to a historical data base.

"If we're asked to review a municipal sewer ordinance, we can call up a master file to scan typical regulation approaches over the years," he notes. "Then, we can retrieve portions of this basic background to create a framework for the review and a new submittal, rather than starting from scratch."

Gerwert notes that careful planning of an electronic-filing scheme has enabled his group to optimize network file-server capabilities. Because key information has been scanned from previous hard-copy documents to supplement the data base, a number of paper files have been discarded. Using key-word and search-string commands, professionals can quickly locate needed information in the substitute electronic files.

Gerwert adds that electronic mail has simplified management communications, too.

"Suppose Dr. Betsy Anker-Johnson, our vice president, sees an article she wants to share with 20 people in EAS," says Gerwert. "In the old days, she would have handwritten a buck slip and given it with the article to a secretary to photocopy and route through interoffice mail. It might have taken days for everyone to see it. Now, the article is scanned and placed in an electronic file. She keys a memo, noting what drawer the article's in, and sends it via the network to everyone she wants to review it and comment. Within minutes, the people on her mailing list can read the article and respond."

Through electronic mail, Ron Griesbeck, graphics specialist, technical services department, receives input every morning for a "daily report" to staff. The report is posted in departments throughout EAS to keep employees abreast of world, corporate and EAS news. It can include everything from bar charts showing GM sales to graphs of stock-saving plans.

"The corporate input comes into EAS via TTY and is relayed to me via the network," says Griesbeck, "while EAS information also arrives via the network. Then I create whatever graphics are needed on my workstation, format the report, and print in. In the future, instead of printing this report, we may make it available to everyone via the network." Another Application Was Found

Griesbeck also has found another network application: project management. He recently coordinated a special project that EAS handled to help out another GM division. Eight EAS graphics and documentation experts, adept at creating graphics and formatting pages at the workstations, produced a 242-page section of a service manual. These experts, scattered throughout EAS offices, worked on the project before and after hours and on weekends--whenever their regular duties permitted. Yet, Griesbeck found it easy to manage their efforts with the aid of the LAN.

"We were able to complete the project in just over two weeks," says Griesbeck. "I used the system itself to do as much of the coordination and management as possible. It worked beautifully."

Griesbeck set up a central "file folder" for the project on the Ethernet file server. A time log was kept in one file drawer, and common graphic elements that individuals felt others could use were stored in an applications drawer. Another file drawer let individuals review project work status and comments from colleagues before they began work. This scheme ensured that all individuals were working with the most up-to-date information regardless of when they worked on the project.

"There's no reason this type of electronic project management can't be employed with team members in different buildings or even sections of the country," adds Flynn. "This project provides insights into how we can use bits and pieces of productive time to complete very large projects in a short amount of time--without reassigning people or physically relocating them to new departments."

Reinvesting the time staffers are saving with the office network is a key to EAS's office-system success, Flynn concludes.

"It would be far more difficult, perhaps impossible, to do this with a stand-alone office system," he says. "Communication is essential. Of course, we still have plans to improve our communications capabilities. For instance, within the next year, we hope to tie our LAN to a PBX system to exploit the best of both telephone and computer network technology."
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Communications News
Date:Oct 1, 1984
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