Meta Matters Meta Here. Meta There. Meta Everywhere?
As a young database professional in the mid-1970s I grew up on metadata — data that describes and defines other data. In fact, I wrote one of the first books explaining it from a data-as-corporate-resource point of view in 1981.
Who knew that in the 21st century there would ever be such a thing as big data, more dependent on metadata (if that's possible) than even 'regular' (transaction) data?! Or that the metadata of phone conversations would become a central artifact in the struggle over civil liberties?!
Back then it never much occurred to me that there could be other kinds of 'meta'. Well, except maybe metaphysics. But you don't want to go there. That's some realm beyond physics where physics isn't physics any more.
Anyway, I was wrong about there not being other important kinds of 'meta'.
In the 1990s I learned there was such a thing as meta-rules — rules that govern other rules. That led to RuleSpeak® — rules for expressing rules in structured natural language. More recently it led to new thinking about the engineering of governance — business policies guiding the creation, approval, and dissemination of other business policies within an organization. (Think rulebook management as governance infrastructure.)
I'm also pretty sure there could be metaprocesses — processes that transform other processes. I got a large amount of (often quite confused) feedback about that question on social media, so let me save that issue for next month's column.
What other meaningful kinds of 'meta' are there? It's fun to play with the question words where, who, and when, but I don't think there are any real meta's to those. I could certainly be wrong, however.
I do have one strict rule for judging when you truly have something 'meta'. My rule:
Some meaningful verb(s), not just a preposition, must be used in defining a 'meta' thing.
Examples we've already discussed:
- Metadata — Data that describes and defines other data. (You should not say just "data about data.")
- Meta-rule — Rule that governs other rules. (You should not say just "rules about rules.")
- Metaprocess — Process that transforms other processes. (You should not say just "processes about processes.")
Where else could you look for meta's? Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (MWUD) defines the kind of 'meta' we're discussing here as follows:
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
MWUD gives these examples (I added the verbs):
- metalanguage — language for talking about other languages.
- metatheory — theory for structuring other theories.
- metasystem — system that orchestrates other systems.
On this latter 'meta', be careful not to think of system in just the computer sense. MWUD defines system in the sense I mean here as:
1 a : 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
So a system in that sense could include rules, roles, and many other things. In other words it's much more than just a process. The appropriate verb for meta-system is therefore orchestrates, not transforms. That's an important distinction.
Meta-analysis. In science & research literature these days you commonly read about meta-analysis. An article in The Economist recently defined meta-analysis as "a technique which uses entire studies as single data points in an overarching statistical analysis." In other words, an analysis that analyzes other analyses.
Meta-architecture. I wonder if there is such a thing as meta-architecture — architecture for structuring architectures? That's an interesting question. I don't think so, but I could easily be wrong.
Meta-vocabulary. I do know there's meta-vocabulary — vocabulary that speaks about other vocabularies. That's a central feature of the OMG standard SBVR (Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules). I can tell you with great certainty that a meta-vocabulary is not the same thing as metadata — not by a long shot! I can also tell you that in a knowledge economy, meta-vocabulary will ultimately prove much more important than metadata.
Meta-knowhow. I believe there's also such a thing as meta-knowhow — knowhow that indicates how to organize other knowhow. Unfortunately, as few business practitioners today know how important meta-knowhow is, as knew in the mid-1970s how important metadata was.
That will change. And it won't take long.
Meta-knowhow for organizing core operational business knowhow is essential to play effectively in the knowledge economy. A significant part of that equation is simply reigning-in today's outlandish costs of operation (think IT budgets for starters). Best practices already exist for the area. Companies are paying a huge (and unsustainable) price for not engaging with them sooner rather than later.
The Ultimate Meta
As Table 1 presents there are yet other meaningful meta's. Spending too much of your time in meta-meetings?
model that represents other models
robot that manipulates other robots
story that tells other stories
discussion that expounds on how to have other discussions
conference that consults on how to hold other conferences
meeting that discusses how to schedule and run other meetings
project that organizes other projects
fear that dwells on other fears
The most interesting and powerful 'meta' of all, however, has to be meta-idea — an idea that conceives other ideas, one that enables the birthing (ideation) of other ideas. Examples: (the ideas of) libraries, encyclopedias, and universal education. These are the things that bootstrap whole cultures to a new level of intellectual empowerment.
In The Second Machine Age the authors argue convincingly that with the internet's true coming of age we're living the next big meta-idea right now. It's hard to argue the point. You (the reader) are experiencing it at this very moment. After all, how likely is it that we would be conceptualizing 'meta' together here if it weren't for the internet?!
P.S. The concept 'meta' is itself actually a meta-idea. Now there's a good brain teaser if you needed one more!
For further information, please visit BRSolutions.com
 Data Dictionaries and Data Administration: Concepts and Practices for Data Resources Management, by Ronald G. Ross, AMACOM (American Management Association), New York (1981), 454pp. The definition of metadata in the preceding sentence is straight from the glossary, pp. 432.
 I mean the Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary definition 1b(1) : something that deals with what is beyond the physical or the experiential.
 See www.RuleSpeak.com. The RuleSpeak guidelines are free.
 The MWUD meaning for meta- pertaining to metaphysics is different:
3a: beyond : transcending
Besides metaphysics, MWUD's examples for that definition include metapsychosis, metageometry, metabiological, and metempirics (meta-empirics). Let's not go any of those places! The 'meta' I mean (definition 3b) is far more specific and useful, even if abstract. Unfortunately, I believe many metaprocess proponents mean that (unscientific) 3a definition.
 Refer to the SBVR Insider section on www.BRCommunity.com
 For discussion of operational business know-how, refer to my posts:
- Single Source of Business Truth — http://www.ronross.info/blog/2014/03/18/single-source-of-business-truth/.
- Managing Know-How in the Knowledge Economy: What Role Do Business Rules Play? –http://www.ronross.info/blog/2013/08/12/managing-know-how-in-the-knowledge-economy-what-role-do-business-rules-play/.
 Meta-meetings of course are notorious in the corporate lore of muddling businesses. The definition might be more colorfully worded: meeting whose only purpose is to plan other/more meetings.
 On March 4, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address "… let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…." The quote could be rephrased "the only thing we have to fear is meta-fear." That does, however, lose something of the punch, doesn't it.
 MWUD definition: the process of entertaining and relating ideas
 The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, W.W. Norton & Company, New York (2014), pp. 306.
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