Collation errors in business

December 14, 2010

At the PASS Summit last month, I did a set (Lightning Talk) about collation, and in particular, the difference between the “English” spoken by people from the US, Australia and the UK.T-SQL Tuesday

One of the examples I gave was that in the US drivers might stop for gas, whereas in Australia, they just open the window a little. This is what’s known as a paraprosdokian, where you suddenly realise you misunderstood the first part of the sentence, based on what was said in the second. My current favourite is Emo Phillip’s line “I like to play chess with old men in the park, but it can be hard to find thirty-two of them.”

Essentially, this a collation error, one that good comedians can get mileage from.

Unfortunately, collation is at its worst when we have a computer comparing two things in different collations. They might look the same, and sound the same, but if one of the things is in SQL English, and the other one is in Windows English, the poor database server (with no sense of humour) will get suspicious of developers (who all have senses of humour, obviously), and declare a collation error, worried that it might not realise some nuance of the language.

One example is the common scenario of a case-sensitive collation and a case-insensitive one. One may think that “Rob” and “rob” are the same, but the other might not. Clearly one of them is my name, and the other is a verb which means to steal (people called “Nick” have the same problem, of course), but I have no idea whether “Rob” and “rob” should be considered the same or not – it depends on the collation.

I told a lie before – collation isn’t at its worst in the computer world, because the computer has the sense to complain about the collation issue.

People don’t.

People will say something, with their own understanding of what they mean. Other people will listen, and apply their own collation to it. I remember when someone was asking me about a situation which had annoyed me. They asked if I was ‘pissed’, and I said yes. I meant that I was annoyed, but they were asking if I’d been drinking. It took a moment for us to realise the misunderstanding.

In business, the problem is escalated. A business user may explain something in a particular way, using terminology that they understand, but using words that mean something else to a technical person.

I remember a situation with a checkbox on a form (back in VB6 days from memory). It was used to indicate that something was approved, and indicated whether a particular database field should store True or False – nothing more. However, the client understood it to mean that an entire workflow system would be implemented, with different users have permission to approve items and more. The project manager I’d just taken over from clearly hadn’t appreciated that, and I faced a situation of explaining the misunderstanding to the client. Lots of fun…

Collation errors aren’t just a database setting that you can ignore. You need to remember that Americans speak a different type of English to Aussies and Poms, and techies speak a different language to their clients.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Audrey Hammonds

    Great post!  I love T-SQL Tuesday!  And I absolutely love the analogy of collation errors as miscommunication between business and technical people.  Next time I run into this situation (which will probably be within the next few hours), I’m going to announce that I’ve run into a collation error.  

  2. AjarnMark

    Great examples, Rob.  And I loved your Lightning Talk, too!  Very funny!  I sometimes tell people that I’m Tri-Lingual… I speak Engligh, Geek, and Business.

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