Monday, February 14, 2011


A business analyst I used to work with had a theory about metawork. His definition of the term was work about work. He cited HR departments as the classic example.

As he liked to explain it, metawork is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. A certain amount is necessary for a well-functioning organization. It's not unusual for new companies to fail because of an overly rich work to metawork mixture.

But, my friend went on, metawork is like a gas -- it expands to fill all available space, both because it's easy to create metawork projects and because those projects can often be stretched to whatever time is available to them (you can always schedule an extra meeting). Furthermore, once it has established a foothold, it has a way of becoming part of the corporate culture.

There are also other reasons why companies tend to grow more metawork heavy as they mature and expand:

Major metawork initiatives tend to be top down (no customer ever said, "I like this company's products but I have a feeling they aren't having enough team-building seminars."). From a career standpoint, it is always a good idea to give a high priority to projects that people above you consider important;

Metawork projects almost always sound good. They have impressive sounding goals like improving efficiency, raising morale, making the company more nimble and responsive, or moving to data-driven strategies (more on that one in future posts). They suggest big-picture, forward-thinking approaches that make fixing problems like billing glitches seem prosaic, perhaps even trivial;

Metawork tends to be safer than the other kind. Let's say a company launches two big and badly-conceived initiatives, a new product launch and a 'data-driven' reworking of the project management process. The product sells badly and the new process eats up man hours without making projects run faster or smoother. Both end up costing the company about the same amount of money, but the product's failure is public and difficult to ignore while the process's failure is internal and can be denied with some goalpost moving and willing suspension of disbelief (something that's easy to generate for a VP's pet project);

As mentioned before, metawork isn't all pre-meetings and mission statements. Some kinds of metawork are essential (payroll comes to mind). Other kinds can help a company improve its profitability and stability (like employee morale studies in a labor-intensive industry with high turnover). Employee can be resistant to some of these good, important initiatives, but it's worth keeping a couple of facts in mind:

There is a lot of bad metawork out there;

The employees who most resent doing metawork are often the employees who are doing the most of the other kind of work.

1 comment:

  1. "The employees who most resent doing metawork are often the employees who are doing the most of the other kind of work."

    These are the people making product and supporting customers, and metawork generally detracts from their efforts.