Monday, November 12, 2007

No shoehorns - asking the right questions

First published online 12th November 2004

I recently gave a short seminar in London about global name and address management. Much of the time was taken up in emphasizing how culturally different names are addresses are around the world, and how systems must be adapted to match these differences, rather than trying to match real-world information to an inadequate system.

At the end, one of the questions was: "OK, I accept everything you say, but, if I'm stuck with a system which has been designed to take only American addresses, how can I shoehorn international addresses into that format?". The questioner was using Siebel. SAP users at the seminar all nodded in understanding. They all felt that they had to try to change the world because their systems demanded it.

The answer to the question, by the way, is that you can't. You can try, but you will damage your data, pollute your database and face huge bills to clean data up after the event. What is mysterious to me is why the users, large corporations who can vote with their wallets, don't turn this problem around and confront Siebel, SAP and cohorts, and demand that, given what they are charging for their systems, they make them more valid for storing global data. I think a few choice words and hinted threats to move to other systems from a small number of large users would make the suppliers move fast to do this. I haven't heard this being done, and I think it's time somebody started the ball rolling.

The secret is to ask the right question.

I recently read an article about parsing international personal names. The question asked by the author was "How would you split these names in order to put the proper elements in the surname field and given name field?". He then listed 6 personal names with different cultural origins. What I noted immediately was that one name was Islamic, where family names are not used; one name contained a generational name; one a patronym; one a preposition and so on. The idea that these names could have been shoehorned into an Anglo-Saxon given name/family name structure is not acceptable. In my eyes, the question being asked was wrong. Why try to force information into a system which is blatantly not suited to it? My question would have been: "How can I adjust my database structure to hold these personal name forms?"

Let's call time on showhorning and start asking the right questions!

(c) 2004 Graham Rhind. Reproduction only allowed with permission. Comment and dialogue welcome.

No comments: