Case Studies

Case Study: Computerizing membership management and Dues Collections in a multi-Local Union – NPMHU


The Typical Union.

Unions span the gamut of businesses in terms of number of employees and customers – customers in this case being the members they organize to receive fair and reasonable working conditions and benefits from their respective employers.

Regardless the size of the Union, they are all faced with the same issues:

  • Organizing events
  • Keeping members employed
  • Collecting membership Dues,
  • Managing various funds
  • Negotiating employment contracts with one or many employers
  • Membership communications
  • Government lobbying at all levels
  • Government reporting compliance
  • The list goes on and on…

All the above requires some level of computerization enabling the traditionally small headquarters staff to manage the constant requests for information relative to the membership or the Union’s operations. The National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU) is confronted with those demands and more on a daily basis.

NPMHU’s Organization

NPMHU has a relatively small headquarters staff. Their membership base is approximately 200,000 members in nearly 37 autonomous Locals across the United States. Each Local has its own elected leadership and support staff. Many members, including retirees, live overseas. The membership consists not only of postal service mail handlers but also includes federal government employees who join as associate members – a prerequisite for eligibility to participate in the Mail Handler’s Benefit Plan (MHBP), a health insurance group plan offered through a nationally recognized insurer.

Mail Handlers and some postal service, non-mail handler associate members pay dues via Dues Check Off. The larger percentage of associate members pay Dues when invoiced. Computer files and an accompanying payment are received from the Postal Service for Dues and other amounts withheld from the member’s pay. A third-party bank is used as a lock box to collect payments from invoiced members. Still other members pay dues to NPMHU headquarters directly where their credit card information is taken over the phone and processed immediately for approval using a terminal connected to a credit card payment gateway service.

To aide in the management of member and payment information, NPMHU has deployed an off-the-shelf member management system purchased in the late 1980’s, which is no longer supported by the developer or the hardware manufacturer. At some point, NPMHU was given the system source code so they could make customizations on their own. The legacy system provides little to no adaptability in that everything is “hard-coded.” Typical parameters often requiring modification include but are not limited to Dues rates, fees and per capita percentages for each of the 37 Locals.

The Problem

The circa 1980 computer system had become the headquarters’ business model. There was no connection to the accounting system other than visualized reports. An NPMHU staff member had to modify the source code and recompile the programs each time common parameters changed. Due to this and other complications the Secretary-Treasurer no longer wanted to have his operational flexibility constricted.

NPMHU’s operating costs were higher than need be due in large part to the legacy systems’ age and limitations. Although NPMHU had managed to keep their staff at impressively low numbers relative to their member base, their third-party service costs were a significant percentage of operating costs. Expenses were incurred from an outsourced printing company to print and mail literally 100’s of thousands of invoices each year. Subsequently, bank transaction and lock box fees were further incurred to process the resulting payments. Thousands of pages of reports were printed every pay period, in triplicate. One copy was kept on site, another was decollated and mailed to each of the Locals and a third was sent for off-site storage. Reports could not be stored electronically for reviewing or re-printing. Temporary help was brought in during “peak” season when invoiced members called headquarters with inquiries and credit card Dues payments.

The Challenge

Based on a word-of-mouth recommendation from another Union, JayStar was engaged to replace the legacy system with one more flexible, less costly to operate and able to maintain the business operational requirements currently in place. Reports needed to stay the same (with minor modification), imported file processing needed to remain consistent and member data management had to be fast and reliable to meet the stringent requirements of peak time payment transaction volume.

Unlike the typical methods utilized when replacing a legacy system there was limited allocation of time for discovery due to staffing time restrictions. Further, no written requirements were provided other than the un-compiled program listings of the legacy system and sample output reports. JayStar was asked to learn many of the business rules and the data processing logic from these documents.
Descriptions of the primary files used in the legacy system accompanied the program listings. Since the legacy system was a generic product there were many files not used by NPMHU and more than one file contained fields with a common name used among them such as “effective date.”
There are over 100 distinct RPG programs in the legacy system and dozens of files, 6 of which were given to JayStar as the “master” files. All 6 had to be analyzed and mapped for migration to the new system along with another 11 regularly imported files and 5 more migration files of less significance. Several of the migration files contained 10’s of millions of records.

The Solution

JayStar began a unique process of discovery by reading the RPG listings and analyzing the data files to determine how the legacy system operated. Since only a portion of the source code listings were provided to JayStar some business processes where left unexplained. Those knowledge gaps were filled primarily via email questions and answers.

After the current system was understood JayStar wrote a functional design document (FDD) explaining how JayStar’s Orion product, a browser-based user interface to a SQL database, would function as a replacement and much more to NPMHU’s legacy system. The FDD was presented to NPMHU for review, comment and approval along with a system prototype.

Presentations were made to an assembled team of NPMHU’s accounting, operations and executive management personnel to demonstrate how JayStar’s Orion product would work. The prototype was left available for NPMHU to review. Comments received from the presentation and prototype review were seamlessly integrated into the design enabling the modified Orion product to be highly tailored to NPMHU’s day-to-day operations.
Another JayStar system named Polaris traditionally passes account receivable and payable transactions from the Orion database to various accounting package systems. Integration with the accounting system was not required by NPMHU but Polaris was modified to capture payment transactions and generate invoices for members not on Dues Check Off. Flexibility was added to Polaris enabling NPMHU to either print invoices for mailing in-house or to continue using a third-party printer, or a hybrid of the two.

Benefits Realized

The resulting Orion system for NPMHU not only mirrors existing business practices but enhances operational productivity by automating many of the manual processes previously performed.

Time and costs were saved by reducing the amount of paper used in printing reports and negating entirely the need for off-site storage. In fact, there is no need at all to ever print a report due to Orion’s capability for online searching of 1600+ page reports in seconds to find specific information down to the member. Since the reports are online the normal server back-up routine completely eliminates the need for off-site storage of printed reports. And finally, a process whereby reports were formerly decollated, scanned and ultimately emailed to specific Locals is now managed entirely by Orion automatically – as long as the Local has a box checked In Orion indicating reports are sent by email.

Invoices are now a simple MS Word mail-merge document. When changes are required to the invoice text or format it’s an easy matter of editing the Word document. No more working with the 3rd party printer who subsequently billed NPMHU for all document edits.

Parameters that used to control Local Dues rates, per capita calculations and other fees were hard-coded into the legacy system. In Orion all parameters that can and readily do change are placed in a table where NPMHU can update, add or delete them as required, thereby changing the dynamic from a program coding, testing and implementation process taking days if not weeks to complete to one now managed in a few key strokes measured in minutes.

Utilities are provided with Orion giving access to all the data for extracting, sorting and reporting using any MS Office product (Word, Excel, Access, etc.). If any of the ad hoc extracts and / or reports are to be used on a consistent basis they can be saved and reused by any authorized user.
There are many other time and money saving advantages NPMHU has gained using Orion and Polaris – too numerous to mention here. Bottom line, the Secretary-Treasurer of NPMHU is so pleased with the JayStar solution he has written letters of recommendation of JayStar to other Postal Service Unions.