IT'S NO SECRET that most banks are highly protective of their public image.

But with the help of new technology, banks can use computer-generated images to make a better impression on their customers.

Imperial Bank, Los Angeles, for example, is using a new PC-based document imaging and archival system that allows it to eliminate microfiche and paper-based filing systems.

But more important than reducing operating costs, the system allows the $3.3 billion-asset bank to reduce response time for client and internal information requests.

Like many commercial banks, Imperial has had to make some hard choices about the way it accesses vital information.

For most banks, the options are usually to hire additional staff and install extra phone lines, or to adopt new systems to do the job with existing employees

Retrieving account information via paper or microfiche used to take several minutes and slow down the process of answering queries.

Imperial's new software has enabled the bank to improve productivity, eliminate paper and microfiche costs, and avoid hiring more operational staff.

"It now literally takes seconds to find information that used to take several minutes," said Richard J. Hatten, vice president and systems consultant at Imperial.

"The ability to retrieve data quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively is crucial to both internal operations and customer service."

The system, called PCI/Reports Archival 4.0 and developed by Monroe, N.C.-based Protocorp International creates the ability to interface with virtually all of the bank's computers.

At Imperial, it runs in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows PC operating environment, but it also works under International Business Machines Corp.'s OS/2 and Microsoft's DOS operating systems.

The unit is used with an optical storage drive -- technology similar to that used in compact-disk recording.

Each day, reports are downloaded from the mainframe to the optical server. Access to the reports is then gained through either a local area network or wide area network connected to the server.

Protocorp has designed a new searching mechanism which speeds system use and creates the ability to interface with the bank's computer system.

Now Imperial's employees can use the system to search a 200-page report for a specific dollar amount and find the desired information in five seconds or less.

Mr. Hatten said the rise of the "just-in-time purchasing" inventory strategy is a compelling example of the need for increased response time to customer inquiries.

"Optical storage systems drastically reduce the storage requirement and make banks drastically more efficient in the accessing of information," said William T. Gregor, who is senior vice president, financial service practice, at Cambridge, Mass.-based Gemini Consulting Inc.

Optical storage units drastically reduce a bank's storage space requirements, Mr. Gregor said, saving time formerly spent on transferring data to microfiche.

Another feature of the PCI/ Report systems is software that uses the excess processing capacity on a personal computer network to perform data compression.

Imperial expects a quick turnaround on its initial investment.

Because the software has diminished the need for microfiche production, paper, file cabinets, supplies, and off-site storage space, Mr. Hatten expects the system to pay for itself within 12 months.

"We have found that the cost of implementing the system is offset by eliminating other costs," he said.

"It will be entirely paid for by the [productivity] and operating costs we're saving," Mr. Hatten added.

Since installing Protocorp's document imaging system in early July, Imperial has taken on a tall order: to reduce by 90% the amount of paper reports generated.

"Every major application we process that generates computer reports is going onto optical storage. That's the goal," Mr. Hatten said.

So far Imperial Bank has used the optical storage system only in its research departments. The next step, Mr. Hatten said, is to give the rest of the bank access to optically stored information.

"We want to give everyone in the bank who needs the information access to it through the system," he said.

Imperial's new system also safeguards against errors because information is extracted from the on-line data base and archived directly to the optical storage server.

As a result, auditing and accounting tasks can now be completed without much difficulty, Mr. Hatten said.

And because the software is run in a Windows environment, Imperial has found it to be easy to work with.

Once the data is found, the cut and paste" function allows it to be moved from the body of a report or transaction directly to another application like spreadsheets or word processing.

Security is another feature. With the software, Imperial Bank can control report distribution with built-in security measures.

One reason why more banks of Imperial's size haven't embraced optical storage technology is the cost of the systems.

Expenses include purchasing or leasing the system, maintenance, supplies, cartridges, and application development.

Despite all its advantages, there are still some snags to be worked out of optical storage technology.

Perhaps the biggest question is one of legality. There has long been discussion in the industry over whether optically stored documents are an acceptable substitute for hard copy, especially in court proceedings.

But because Imperial's system is an optical storage type called write-once, read-many -- in which a document cannot be altered after it has been transferred to the disk, the technology is gaining the legitimacy of formal documents, Mr. Hatten said.

The relative newness of the software has also been a barrier, experts say.

But Mr. Hatten said that as the technology evolves, huge storage volumes and quicker response times will make optical storage an increasingly viable choice in the 1990s.

"We'll also be ahead of the curve in the area of document storage," he said.

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