More Meta Matters Probing the Gamut of Meta

Ronald G.  Ross
Ronald G. Ross Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Executive Editor, Business Rules Journal , and Co-Chair, Building Business Capability (BBC) Read Author Bio       || Read All Articles by Ronald G. Ross

In the wake of last month's column "Meta Matters" I stirred up extensive discussion about many things 'meta', not the least of which was metaprocesses.  In this column I present some of the responses and my replies.  No matter whether you're involved in business processes, business architecture, business analysis, or (of course) business rules, I think you'll find this ongoing dialog quite interesting.  Throughout, remember the basic question:  What is 'meta'?



Metadata vs. Meta-AnythingElse

Kevin Smith, www.PragmaticEA.com, commented:

I am not sure why you have asked about what is meta.  You know the word 'meta' means "information about" and so to quizzically ask what other meta things exist, rather than just metadata, is a bit odd.

The answer (which I am sure you already know) is, of course, that you can apply the word 'meta' to anything you like so long as there is some benefit/reason for doing so.

Perhaps you are asking so people begin to talk generally about it?

  • My reply:  Many people think they know what meta means, but I find that's not the case.  The relevant definitions for meta- from Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (MWUD) are:

    3a: beyond : transcending *metaphysics* ...  I would avoid this definition because it takes you to neverneverland.

    3b: of a higher logical type — in nouns formed from names of disciplines and designating new but related disciplines such as can deal critically with the nature, structure, or behavior of the original ones *metalanguage* *metatheory* *metasystem* … I believe this is the useful definition.

There's much more to meta- than simply "information about."  That usage probably arises from metadata, but meta- does not generalize to other nouns besides "data" in the sense of "information about."  There are at least two things wrong with that line of thinking:

  1. It violates the basic definition (3b) of meta-.  Any use of meta- must be based on the same noun.  So "information about data" is disallowed in defining metadata.  Instead you must say "data about data."  Change the noun and all bets are off.  (The assumption here of course is you don't mean "data" and "information" as synonyms.  I certainly wouldn't go there.)

  2. It violates my additional rule for defining meta- as follows:  You must always use a verb, not just a preposition.  Prepositions hide meaning.  So instead of "about" I would say "describes."  That way metadata becomes "data that describes other data."  The chosen verb must be intrinsic to the meaning or purpose of the thing  — in this case, data.  Data always describes — no exceptions, no reasonable dissent.  (It should also be an active verb.)

Introducing a verb to the core meaning of a meta- forces you to put a semantic stake in the ground.  So use of meta- is not at all limited to just "information about."  The MWUD definition does not require that, or even suggest it.

Testing for "Meta" Somethings — An Example

In the definition of something that can also be meta- there must be an active verb that requires an object.  The something must be able to be both subject and object of that verb.

Example:  model

Definition (loosely):  A model is something that represents another something.

Active Verb Requiring an Object:  represents

Ability to Play Both Subject and Object of the Verb:  In the definition above …

  • Suppose the 'another something' is other models.
  • Then 'other models' can be substituted for the object, which yields:  'a model is something that represents other models'.
  • So 'model' can play both subject and object of the verb.
  • That makes the subject a meta-model.

Substituting 'meta-model' for the subject yields:  'a meta-model is something that represents other models'.

MetaProcess vs. Enabling Process

A Senior Business Analyst commented:

Viewing an organization in terms of the classic pyramid of strategic, tactical, and operational levels, it seems to me that each level performs processes that enable other processes at the next level down.  You might call these enabling processes, especially those at the strategic level.

When executives perform an enabling process, in effect they transform other processes lower in the pyramid.  I think the enabling processes can therefore be called metaprocesses.

  • My reply:  Processes that enable other processes, that build on what they have produced, are of course extremely important.  That's how stuff gets done and value added.  But that's not the same as a metaprocess.

An enabling process doesn't directly 'operate on' (transform) another process, nor is a transformed process its output.  So I would have to say an enabling process is not a metaprocess.

I also don't think that, in performing an enabling process at the strategic level, executives directly transform processes at the tactical or operational level.  (If only they were that hands-on!)

Instead, they establish business policies, goals, and objectives that then can be used by other people to transform 'lower-level' processes appropriately (and directly).  In other words, their outputs are strategy or strategic direction.  Those are simply not processes per se ... even if probably more important!

MetaProcess vs. Something More than a Process

Amit Mitra, Senior Manager at TCS America, commented:

Is there such a thing as a metaprocess?  Yes, there is!  I am teaching the metaprocess in a master's course … as a part of an overall model of knowledge that integrates reasoning, measurement, business rules, and process.  Indeed, you can infer the business functionality required of the ideal BPM tool from the properties and parameters of the metaprocess.  (No current tools support them all, but they do support the most obvious properties.)  The metaprocess also accounts for progressively unstructured processes, and processes that reason about themselves, to infer how they could adapt to different situations.

  • My reply:  Interesting indeed.  However, what is your definition of process?

I think the key part of what a process is (and isn't) is that it transforms something (turns raw material into finished goods, inputs into outputs).  Business rules never transform anything — that's a key differentiator from business processes.  Reasoning and measurement 'transform' something only in a trivial sense.

My point is that the thing you've created a meta- for isn't really a process.  It's more comprehensive.  It's more like core business know-how or core business capability.

The industry desperately needs a better name for the kind of thing you're creating ... because it's central to moving toward a knowledge economy (and a more rational, sustainable way of doing business).



Eric Ducos, CTO of EmeriCon, commented:

Is there such a thing as a metaprocess?  I would definitely think so.  A methodology for identifying, analyzing, and building a BPM solution is a metaprocess (i.e., a process to build a process).

  • My reply:  I agree except for the word methodology.  A methodology is more than a process.  It includes rules and guidelines, for example.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (MWUD) defines methodology as (1a):

a body of methods, procedures, working concepts, rules, and postulates employed by a science, art, or discipline.

But here's a thought:  There could be such a thing as a meta-methodology ... a methodology indicating how to create (other) methodologies.



John Morris, Director, Solutions Sales at Bosch Software Innovations, commented:

In terms of driving work on metaprocesses, I suspect that tort law, regulation, and compliance issues might eventually prove to be motivators, more than competition.  One might think that having good software would be guaranteed by competition, especially as the information content of most products and services is increasing.  The governance challenge, however, is that the semantic content of software is buried by "what you see" — i.e., the surface of the software.  All too often that's where discussion stops.

  • My reply:  I couldn't agree more.  That gets you into rules and meta-rules — i.e., into something more than a process.

Metaprocess vs. Governance Process

Mark Linehan commented:

Well-run businesses have a formal governance process:  a business process for managing changes to other business processes.  Defined this way, a governance process is a metaprocess.

  • My reply:  There is a governance process in every organization, whether well-run or not.  Unfortunately it's often unstructured and ad hoc.

In any case, according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary ["govern" 1a] governance is about:

the making and administration of [business] policy in [an organization]

Yes, business policies can certainly have the effect of changing (transforming) other organizational processes.  But that's indirect.  So I think calling a governance process meta- is a bit tenuous.

Metaprocess vs. Generalization of Processes

John Bertolet, Global Business Process Management director at Schneider Electric, commented:

I have seen the term metaprocess used as the generic name for a high-level process.  This usually comes up in the context of trying to name the levels of a process architecture — for example:

  1. Highest-level, end-to-end process or "value chain" or assembly of processes
  2. Process
  3. Sub-process
  4. Activity
  5. Task

People usually mean the first level above as a metaprocess.  But I have not seen any universally-accepted standard for this naming convention; so it is whatever you define it to be.

  • My reply:  My definition of metaprocess is process that transforms other processes.  Your hierarchy represents the decomposing of processes.  A process being (passively) decomposed is certainly not the same thing as a process (actively) transforming another process.  Based on that difference, no, I would not say a value chain is a metaprocess.

Of course, there is (must be) a process for decomposing other processes.  But that specific functionality is highly specialized; not all processes do it.  In fact, most don't.  So decompose is not an appropriate verb for a definition of metaprocess.  It's not intrinsic to what all processes do.



A Systems Architect commented:

Is there such a thing as a metaprocess?  Yes.  One way to look at the answer is processes for the creation and management of processes.

But another way is a generalized process ... like a design-level process pattern for a certain class of operable processes ... which must go through a process design and implementation for a specific situation before it is an operable process.

  • My reply:  Design-level process patterns can be highly useful.  However, I don't think they qualify under the useful dictionary definition of meta-.

Let's test the 'rule for meta'.  Inserting a verb phrase I get "design-level process pattern that can be customized to a more specific process."  There are at least two problems with that:

  • The nouns must be the same on either side of the verb phrase.  But a "pattern" is not the same as a "process."

  • A process is fundamentally one that transforms things.  But "can be customized to" has no sense of transforming something else.

So, no, I don't think a design-level process pattern should be viewed as a metaprocess in the strict sense of the term.  (Thought-provoking though!)



Filipe Pinto, business process architect, commented:

An example of a metaprocess is the epistemic process.

  • My reply:  I assume you mean the process through which knowledge is acquired.  That's an interesting one.

For the sake of argument I'll say that doesn't fit the definition of metaprocess I'm using:  process that transforms other processes.  Instead, I would argue it's a case of extreme generalization.  Rather than being a process that supports the learning of only one kind of thing, it's a process that supports the learning of many (all?) kinds of things.  Meta- and generalization are not the same.

But of course, it all depends on what definition you use — which is the whole point of this discussion.



Mark Linehan commented:        

Templated models are parameterized models that instantiate as concrete models when supplied with arguments for the parameters.  For example, one might have a templated model of a governance process, one that might be instantiated for a specific company department and that requires values for parameters, such as the name of a governance body, or a rule for a governance decision.  Templated models could be thought of as constrained meta-models, in the sense that variance is possible only with respect to the parameters.

  • My reply:  A templated model of a governance process obviously has significant value.  However, generalized processes, including parameterized processes, do not qualify as meta under the definition I am using.  They don't operate on (transform) other things of their own kind (i.e., other processes).

MetaProcess vs. Universal Process Pattern (UPP)

Brian Leapman, U.K.  logistics and supply chain expert, commented:

Meta is essentially when you cannot abstract further or divide further.  It should be the atomic particle level of abstraction.

A metaprocess — the Universal Process Pattern (UPP) — has four potential meta value outputs (whether or not they are modeled):

  • Accept
  • Reject
  • Counterproposal
  • Ignore

For each of these four meta values, there can be a set/range of values where the outcomes are valid for a specific type of instance.

  • My reply:  UPP can be quite useful I think.  However, we started from different semantics. 

You said:  "Meta is essentially when you cannot abstract further or divide further.  It should be the atomic particle level of abstraction."

I'm using Merriam-Webster Unabridged definition [meta- 3b]:

of a higher logical type — in nouns formed from names of disciplines and designating new but related disciplines such as can deal critically with the nature, structure, or behavior of the original ones *metalanguage* *metatheory* *metasystem*

So by metaprocess I mean process that transforms other processes.  Both metaprocess and 'regular' processes could be UPP-compliant.  I believe the notions are orthogonal.

P.S.  I have no idea what a meta-value might be.

Meta-Footnote

Max Tay, Australian BPM consultant, commented:

Here is one of the meanings of meta:  When you create new layers of abstraction between the thing or event, you are becoming more meta.  Example:  A footnote that is needed to explain another footnote is meta.

  • My reply:  I accept your implicit definition of meta-footnotefootnote that explains (other) footnotes ... in the sense of 'footnote that explains how to go about footnoting'.

But I don't accept your example:  "A footnote that is needed to explain another footnote."  That's 'decomposing' or 'expanding on' the original footnote ... just going to a deeper level of explanation.  Decomposition (to a deeper level of detail) or abstraction (to a more general version) is not the same thing as meta-.

This same misunderstanding is rampant for metaprocess.  Expanding the level of detail (decomposing) a process does not mean the original process is meta.

Are PDCA & DAMIC MetaProcesses?

The Director of Business Analysis and Process Improvement at a major organization commented:

Would you consider PDCA and/or DMAIC to be metaprocesses?

  • My replyFirst, some background from Wikipedia:

    PDCA (Plan–Do–Check–Act or Plan–Do–Check–Adjust) is an iterative four-step management method used in business for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products.  It is also known as the:

    • Deming circle/cycle/wheel.
    • Shewhart cycle.
    • control circle/cycle, or plan–do–study–act (PDSA).

    Another version of this PDCA cycle is OPDCA.  The added 'O' stands for observation or as some versions say "Grasp the current condition."  This emphasis on observation and current condition has currency with Lean manufacturing / Toyota Production System literature.

    DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) refers to a data-driven improvement cycle used for improving, optimizing, and stabilizing business processes and designs.  The DMAIC improvement cycle is the core tool used to drive Six Sigma projects.…  All of the DMAIC process steps are required and always proceed in the given order.

Here's how I would answer.

  • The first question is whether they are truly processes.  They do have steps, but PDCA at least is described as a method.  Are methods and processes the same?  I'm a little dubious, but for the sake of argument let's say they are.  (Something is only meta- if it is the same kind of thing as the thing it is applied to.)

  • The second question is whether they have processes as inputs, and processes as outputs.  They do seem to do that. 

  • The third question is whether they do what all processes do — they (potentially) transform the inputs.  They do appear to do that too.  (In other words they satisfy the predicate.)

So I would give a tentative 'yes' to whether they are metaprocesses.

Process Model or Process Instance?

Razvan Radulian, business transformation consultant, commented:

Is there such a thing as a metaprocess?  When we say 'process(es)' there are actually two things that match the term:  (1) process models and (2) process instances

Going back to your definition for metaprocessprocess that transforms other processes — which one(s) are you talking about?
• If instances, that's probably easier to grasp (and, most likely, already taken care of ... by some process model).
• If models, that gets quite more interesting.  So, let's see!  Would that a process instance be (of a metaprocess-model) that changes another process model?

  • My reply:  Good points.  To answer I need to ask what an instance of a process is.  You're probably referring to a performance or execution of a process.

Clearly, "transforming" a ('live') performance is an interesting question.  There are at least two ways of doing that.  The first is a process that coordinates another process in real-time.  Think of a conductor's process to direct a symphony, or a director's process in the making of a movie.

Another way is by real-time evaluation of business rules.  That's how you get truly dynamic, traceable, repeatable 'performances'.

But I was actually talking about process models, not instances (performances).  If you change the model of a process, the effect is to change every performance (execution) of that process model thereafter.  That's how I think most people in business process improvement would think about the matter.

But your points are well-taken.  First, there are probably two kinds of meta- with respect to processes:

  • Meta-process-performance coordinates other process performances.
  • Meta-process-model transforms other process models.

Second, you can mix the two — e.g., talk about a meta-process-performance transforming other process models.  In that case, however, you're not really talking meta-.  The noun subjects are not the same (i.e., performance vs. model).  At that point I think you're just talking about doing actual process improvement work.

What about Meta-Meta-Somethings?

Richard Welke, Professor and Director at Georgia State University, commented:

Any process improvement or change process is a metaprocess of the process it's targeted at.  And, of course, it in turn can have a metaprocess (the process for deciding when and how to change the process improvement or, more generally, BPM process).  Hence it is a meta-meta-process relative to the specific organization process or "routine" being examined/managed.

  • My reply:  Yes, which leads to the questions of …

Meta-meta-data.  A similar argument can be made for 'data'.  Any data that describes other data is metadata.  Metadata, in turn, can have metadata (the data that describes metadata or, more generally, a repository model).  Hence it is meta-meta-data relative to specific business data being managed.

Meta-meta-meta?  I don't think any 'meta-" above meta-meta-process or meta-meta-data would be meaningful (add value).  I could be wrong I suppose.

Meta-System

Alexander Samarin, Swiss business architect, commented:

You have defined metaprocess as a process that orchestrates or transforms other processes.  I think that orchestrate is more relevant to "system of processes."

  • My reply:  Good point about orchestrating being the right verb for meta-system rather than metaprocess.

As always, we need to be careful not to think of system in just the computer sense.  Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary [MWUD] defines system in the sense I mean here as:

1a: a complex unity formed of many often diverse parts subject to a common plan or serving a common purpose  b: an aggregation or assemblage of objects joined in regular interaction or interdependence : a set of units combined by nature or art to form an integral, organic, or organized whole : an orderly working totality : a coherent unification

A system in that sense could include rules, roles, and many other things.  It's much more than just a process.  Huge difference.  So, yes, I agree with meta-system orchestrates other systems.

Meta-Architecture

Louis Marbel, President, Interactive Design Labs, commented:

Is there such a thing as "meta-architecture"? This is a simple one — yes! Let me explain.

Essentially, an architecture description is a specification of the structure/form for organizing the function of a system of interest in order to achieve its intended purpose effectively.  The system of interest can be a building, bridge, enterprise, software system, application, enterprise/business data, etc.

Now, a meta-architecture is a high-order system that operates on an architecture specification as an instance/object and that can validate and/or evaluate the specification to determine consistency and coherence.

This view of meta-architecture is consistent with predicate logic and concepts such as meta-types for software type systems, which are also specifications of the behavior of objects.

  • My reply:  You say "meta-architecture is a [high-order] system".  But you also say an "architecture [description] is a specification of ... structure/form".

"Structure/form" is not the same thing as a "system".  So doesn't that violate the fundamental meaning of meta- … something that operates on other things of its own kind?

I have no doubt that there's such a thing as a meta-system.  Should we think of (true) architecture as a system?

Meta-Cognition

Julian Sammy, management consultant and all-around guru, commented:

What about metacognition?
     awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes,
     or …
     thinking that explores thinking

  • My reply:  Here's some of what Wikipedia says about metacognition:

    This higher-level cognition was given the label metacognition by American developmental psychologist John Flavell (1976).  The term … literally means cognition about cognition, or more informally, thinking about thinking.  Flavell defined metacognition as knowledge about cognition and control of cognition.

Following my 'verb-not-proposition rule' for meta- I get cognition that knows about, and controls, cognition.  In other words, metacognition is about (also from Wikipedia) "when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving."

Yes, good one!

# # #

Standard citation for this article:


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Ronald G. Ross , "More Meta Matters Probing the Gamut of Meta" Business Rules Journal Vol. 15, No. 9, (Sep. 2014)
URL: http://www.brcommunity.com/a2014/b775.html

About our Contributor:


Ronald  G. Ross
Ronald G. Ross Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Executive Editor, Business Rules Journal , and Co-Chair, Building Business Capability (BBC)

Ronald G. Ross is Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rule Solutions, LLC, where he actively develops and applies the IPSpeak methodology including RuleSpeak®, DecisionSpeak and TableSpeak.

Ron is recognized internationally as the "father of business rules." He is the author of ten professional books including the groundbreaking first book on business rules The Business Rule Book in 1994. His newest are:


Ron serves as Executive Editor of BRCommunity.com and its flagship publication, Business Rules Journal. He is a sought-after speaker at conferences world-wide. More than 50,000 people have heard him speak; many more have attended his seminars and read his books.

Ron has served as Chair of the annual International Business Rules & Decisions Forum conference since 1997., now part of the Building Business Capability (BBC) conference where he serves as Co-Chair. He was a charter member of the Business Rules Group (BRG) in the 1980s, and an editor of its Business Motivation Model (BMM) standard and the Business Rules Manifesto. He is active in OMG standards development, with core involvement in SBVR.

Ron holds a BA from Rice University and an MS in information science from Illinois Institute of Technology. Find Ron's blog on http://www.brsolutions.com/category/blog/. For more information about Ron visit www.RonRoss.info. Tweets: @Ronald_G_Ross

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