Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Meeting of Minds

@mcgoverntheory asks whether I know of any research quantifying the cost of the meeting culture in enterprises.

There is a lot of research on meetings, but the cost factors are very complicated to calculate and compare.

There are three elements to the cost of a meeting.

Firstly, the direct cost of the meeting - the travel and subsistence costs of the employees, the daily rates of consultants and contractors, facilities and refreshments. Electronic meetings are often cheaper (at least once the infrastructure is in place), but can be less effective, especially for longer meetings.

Secondly, the opportunity cost of the meeting - what the employees could have been doing if they hadn't been in the meeting. For some jobs, this is calculated on the assumption of constant productivity, so for example if your normal job is writing code or selling products, then every hour in meetings represents a given quantity of code not written, or a given quantity of lost revenue. However, for any job requiring any degree of intelligence, creativity or coordination, the assumption of constant productivity simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

The third element to consider is the cost of not having the meeting. Good meetings can make people more productive and creative, and help avoid wasted effort. Good meetings make the organization more intelligent - processes become more efficient, decisions get better, the organization learns more quickly - and this increases the overall added-value of the work done. (As part of my ongoing research on organizational intelligence, I am looking for ways to benchmark this kind of improvement.)

However, James asked not about the cost of meetings, but about the cost of "the meeting culture". In many large organizations, there are meetings for the sake of meetings, meetings out of habit, whose purpose and value is not obvious to the participants. Surely this kind of thing is the very opposite of organizational intelligence?

Perhaps so, but we should not be too hasty to jump to conclusions. Many people, while complaining bitterly about too many meetings, know perfectly well that they couldn't sustain a high level of productivity at the primary task throughout the day without some variation in routine. It's just not healthy to sit at your desk all day. The meeting therefore serves a useful purpose, to provide relief in an otherwise unremitting working routine. There is a complicit connivance at arranging meetings, at which issues are discussed but not resolved, decisions are deferred, absent stakeholders are talked about behind their backs, and managers can gently doze with their eyes open. The purpose of the meeting is what it does (POSIWID).

This kind of meeting culture especially thrives in the kind of Theory X or Fordist organization where people are expected to be busy all the time, and to fill in timesheets, because time is money. In a Theory Y or post-Fordist organization, people are trusted to get the job done. When you have been staring at the screen for too long, you can just go to the vacant lot behind the office and play football for twenty minutes instead of having to invent a pointless meeting.

So the cost of the meeting culture is basically the human and financial and strategic cost of Fordism. Just give me a call, and I'll come and quantify this cost for your organization. Or we could have a meeting about it.


  1. I've been giving some thought to meetings lately as well, also from a perspective of organizational intelligence. I was thinking along the lines of your third reason for meetings above, but in a more anthropomorphic way: meetings as the "dreams" - or in some cases, "nightmares" - of the organization.

    I've been putting together a blog post on the topic, your thoughts here are helping me to pull it together to make some sense.

  2. "In many large organizations, there are meetings for the sake of meetings, meetings out of habit, whose purpose and value is not obvious to the participants."

    A question came to mind while reading this: Does the value of a meeting need to be obvious to the participant in order to be of value to the organization?

    For that matter, does the meeting actually need to have any value for the participants - as individuals - in order for the meeting to have value for the organization?

    Brett (http://blog.gbrettmiller.com)

  3. thanks Brett

    In principle, a meeting can have value for the organization without having any actual or perceived value for the participants. However, there may well be a cultural problem with an organization that runs meetings on this basis.