Reuse is a good tactic but a poor strategy

I’m hearing people talk more and more about developing a reuse strategy. This is troubling. Reuse is a tactic at best. It is not a strategy. At least, it is not a good strategy.

Content strategy has an acronym COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere. But COPE can mean something a little different from tech comm’s idea of content reuse. Here is Mike Teasdale’s definition of COPE from http://www.harvestdigital.com/content-strategy-in-three-simple-acronyms/

I’m forever seeing great bits of content thrown away on a single tweet or Facebook post.

Think of each content idea like a roast chicken. Don’t scoff the whole thing in one meal, think how you can stretch it across soup, sandwiches, curry etc.

This blog post for instance is based on the presentation for an event we’re about to put on. So it will end up being spread across:

– Blog post

– Event

– Slideshare deck

And if we had a bit more time, we could do some clips of video at the event and publish that back across YouTube.

On top of that, you have the related marketing activity like email, Twitter, posts on Linkedin, Facebook and Google+, so you can see just how far a single piece of content can stretch.

Here, clearly, we are not talking about pulling one string out of a repository and inserting it into multiple publications — we are talking about taking one idea and creating several different presentations of that idea at different scales and in different media.

Far from saying, only write an idea once, it says, when you have an idea worth sharing, don’t settle for only writing it once, write it over and over again in every media you can think of. This makes perfect sense: ideas are hard; text is easy. Getting the maximum use out of an idea is thus clearly more valuable than getting the maximum use out of a text.

Developing the idea is roasting the chicken. It provides the raw material for making soup, sandwiches, and curry. Each of these is a new dish requiring its own preparation — but much less work when you have roast chicken already on hand.  Taking an idea and expressing it again and again in different media is a lot less work than coming up with a new idea — though admittedly it is a lot more work than simply pulling in an existing bit of text.

But pulling a bit of text from a blog post into a slide deck is going to make for a lousy slide deck. Pulling it into a video is going to make a really lousy video. And, yes, pulling it into a video script is going to make a lousy video too, because text is primary in a blog post and narration is secondary in a video, existing only to support the visuals.

Even where the media are the same, literal reuse may not work well when the purpose and context are different. Pulling a description from a technical spec into a marketing brochure may not create the most compelling brochure. Pulling from the brochure into the spec may not lead to the most precise technical definition.

In discussions of reuse, we sometimes hear the term “single source of truth”. But there is a big difference between “truth” and “text”. If you create a single source of text and call it a single source of truth, you are effectively saying there can only be one expression of any truth.

There is a big difference between a truth and an expression of a truth. In fact, the more important a given truth is to you, the more likely that you are going to need several different expressions of that truth.

You need different expressions of a truth:

  • to convey it to different audiences
  • to convey it to people with different learning styles
  • to reinforce it through multiple exposures in multiple forms
  • to reach the widest possible audience
  • to increase the chances of it being picked up or going viral
  • to make it available for quotation or repetition in different media
  • to express different aspects of it for different purposes

Re-expressing the same idea for a different media has become a byword for poor process in tech comm. You absolutely must, must, must, produce your help system from the same source files as your manual.

The problem is, producing your help system from the same files as your manual does not actually produce a very good help system. And when we combine the content of many manuals into a single help system, as is often the practice these days — since asking people to find multiple help systems to look stuff up in is just not reasonable — the result is often a Frankenbook.

The result is considerably better if you create help as Every Page is Page One topics and then sequence them into a manual. But even then, they won’t have the flow of a real manual for those who still want to read one. Hypertext and linear media are fundamentally different and require fundamentally different design approaches.

Another approach to consider is a comprehensive help system, created solely as hypertext for online use, coupled with a few brief targeted manuals designed solely for linear reading and covering those subjects in your content for which it is reasonable to expect the reader to actually sit down and study. By yielding the task of being comprehensive to the help system, these manuals can focus on pedagogy and teaching the few key concepts on which the full use and enjoyment of your product really depend.

You may think that sounds too expensive, but it may not actually cost any more than what you are doing now. We are not talking about a comprehensive manual and a comprehensive help system. The manuals are only designed to cover a few key concepts that require a specific pedagogical approach. And this approach removes a huge amount of design, management, and production overhead required to support the same text in different media.

Reuse does have useful applications, of course. If you are producing multiple variants of the same basic product, and you want a separate doc set for each, reusing common material between them only makes sense.

In other words, reusing text where you would have been writing substantially the same text anyway is clearly the right thing to do. But taking all the various ways in which you might express an important idea and combining them into one expression is a bad idea. Your idea will have more impact and more reach if it is expressed in different ways and in different media for different audiences, different purposes, and different occasions.

Reuse is a useful tactic, but a foolish strategy. Lets make sure we don’t let reuse become more important to us than the effective expression and dissemination of our ideas.

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29 Responses to Reuse is a good tactic but a poor strategy

  1. Scott Abel 2014/09/02 at 09:14 #

    Mark:

    First, COPE is not an acronym for content strategy. An acronym is “an abbreviation formed from the initial components in a phrase or a word” (wikipedia). COPE is nothing more than Ann Rockley’s ‘Unified Content Strategy” (or the more generic, write it once, use it often) repackaged and reexplained by some “content strategists” with limited knowledge of the original intent of the approach, and years after this concept was explained, documented, and implemented many times.

    Second, reusing content from a webinar, for example, is a good idea and a smart content marketing tactic. Webinars, for example, are usually loaded with facts, statics, quotes, etc. But, they are of limited use once the live presentation is over. They can be watched (recorded versions) by additional folks, but they aren’t searchable and the content usually ends up locked in the recording.

    But, if we transcribe the webinar, we can extract content that is likely appropriate for reuse. Quotes can become tweets to promote the recorded webinar. Stats can become fodder for an infographic designed to promote the brand. Transcripts can become interviews and articles on a blog. Photos and graphics can be repurposed into other deliverables. Even content from one webinar slide deck can be repurposed in a similar set of content designed for a slightly different audience or purpose.

    I think a reuse strategy is key to thinking through what you might reuse, why you might reuse it, how you will measure reuse success and more. Of course, it’s the intent of the communication that matters as well as the audience you’re trying to reach. But, by and large, planned reuse is a tactic. Thinking strategically about it allows you to formalize and govern it wisely.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, as always.

    • Mark Baker 2014/09/02 at 21:21 #

      Thanks for the comment, Scott. Sounds like we agree on substance, but differ slightly on the definition of strategy — which is common enough, as strategy is one of those words that seems to defy agreement on definition.

      To my mind, strategy is about goals. If effective communication is the goal, reuse is one possible tactic to help achieve that goal, and all the planning etc is logistics. Logistics is important. And if you want to have a reuse system that does not collapse in confusion and ruin after a couple of years of use, you had better pay very careful attention to the logistics of reuse.

      Where I think the linguistic trap lies is when we start using the word strategy to mean logistics (“we need a strategy *for* reuse”) and it silently morphs into a goal (a strategy *to* reuse). As Orwell warned us, we can easily be led astray by thinking in words rather than about real things.

  2. Leigh White 2014/09/02 at 10:03 #

    I think this post takes a very narrow view of reuse strategy, even misunderstands its intent. Much of what we talk about when we refer to a reuse “strategy” would more accurately be called tactics, it’s true: How will we evaluate content for reuse? How will we decide what’s appropriate to reuse? How will we write our content to maximize its potential for reuse? Will we reuse to the topic, block element, or inline element level? Will we use conrefs, keyrefs, conkeyrefs? How will we handle localization? How will we track reuse? How will we find reusable content? All of these questions (and more) must be answered as part of a content strategy, but they are not the strategy. All of the points you bring up about the inappropriateness of reuse across multiple media must, of course, be resolved as part of the answers to these questions. Not reusing in certain situations is just as much a part of a reuse strategy as reusing.

    We don’t stop here, however. In fact, we don’t start here either. We first outline the justification for reuse, the measure by which we will consider ourselves successful or not, the resources we will need, the time we will need, and the milestones we expect to meet–none of which are tactics. This is pure strategy. Only then, when those pieces are in place do we turn to the specific methods we intend to employ to carry out this plan–those are the tactics.

    I appreciate this post, though, because it’s timely for some projects I’m involved in and it brings up the point that it’s easy to mistake a collection of tactics for a strategy. It always bears repeating that the “what” and “why” must be resolved before we even start to discuss the “how.” It also reminds us to be consistent in our own terminology when we write and speak about reuse (or anything else).

    • Mark Baker 2014/09/02 at 21:34 #

      Thanks for the comment, Leigh.

      “How will we write our content to maximize its potential for reuse?”

      That is precisely where I start to get worried, precisely where I start to think the tail is wagging the dog.

      We should never write our content to maximize its potential for reuse. We should always write our content to maximize its potential to inform, persuade, and engage.

      “We first outline the justification for reuse, the measure by which we will consider ourselves successful or not, the resources we will need, the time we will need, and the milestones we expect to meet–none of which are tactics. This is pure strategy.”

      Here I think we run into the problem that the very idea of strategy is fractal. At each level of an organization we find strategy, tactics, and logistics. From the General’s point of view, getting food and ammo to the front is purely logistics. From the point of view of the supply officer, there is a strategy getting supplies to the right place at the right time, tactics for accomplishing that strategy, and logistics in organizing the supplies that the operation will take.

      At the content strategy level, reuse is never more than a tactic. If that tactic is called for, then someone will be called upon to implement it, and that person will need a reuse strategy.

      But that reuse strategy must serve the larger content strategy goal. And therefore nothing about the way that content is reused should be allowed to interfere with its effectiveness in communicating.

      • Tony Self 2014/09/03 at 02:27 #

        Thanks for the thought-provoking topic, Mark, and thanks everyone for the interesting discussion. I would like to challenge Mark’s view that: “We should never write our content to maximize its potential for reuse. We should always write our content to maximize its potential to inform, persuade, and engage.” I don’t think it’s a dichotomy. To me, it’s a compromise. We don’t have unlimited budgets of money or time, and we have to balance interests.

        It is possible to write content to maximise its potential for reuse whilst still allowing it to inform, persuade or engage. As an example, if I write “Your XD-240 SE camera has 4 GB of internal storage.”, someone might say that the content is maximised to inform, persuade, etc. It is not maximised for reuse, though, because of the inclusion of “XD-240 SE” context. If I rewrite the sentence to “Your camera has 4 GB of internal storage.”, I have maximised the opportunity for reuse without compromising “inform, persuade, engage”.

        You could probably argue that “maximise re-use” could result in a sentence to “Your equipment has internal storage”, but likewise the sentence could be re-written to include the name of the camera’s owner to maximise engagement.

        There are writing and structuring techniques that maximise the opportunity for re-use with little effect on the quality of the content. To me, this challenge is no different to writing to a style manual which might dictate how you should phrase a step or how you should use verbs. Writing to a style manual involves balancing individuality with consistency.

        Regardless of how you define strategy, an objective of modern technical communication should be to create content in the most efficient and effective manner possible within the organisational constraints.

        • Mark Baker 2014/09/03 at 06:50 #

          Thanks for the comment, Tony.

          You have struck on one the points on which I think the focus on reuse is most dangerous. You say:

          “If I rewrite the sentence to “Your camera has 4 GB of internal storage.”, I have maximised the opportunity for reuse without compromising “inform, persuade, engage”.”

          I disagree. When you eliminate context information, you are limiting the ability of content to inform, persuade, and engage. Indeed, correctly establishing context is the foundation on which the ability to inform, persuade, and engage depends. If you don’t establish context, you can’t accomplish any of these aims.

          It is true, of course, that the reused content might appear in a place where the context is already established. One of the biggest problems in tech comm today is that we still tend to think in terms of the reader reading a manual. That is, we assume that they have chosen the correct manual first, and then began reading with their context full established. On that presumption, it is easy to argue that context is established already so you don’t need to do it again.

          I don’t think that’s actually true. Even people who do still consult individual manuals don’t read them consecutively. They search them (if they are online) and skim them, looking for keywords that indicate a relevant piece of content. Thus context needs to be established over and over again if people are not simply to skip over the content they are looking for.

          But people read specific manuals less and less. More and more they simply Google for the information they need. This is the environment in which every page is page one, and every page needs to establish its own context. Without those specific context-setting words, Google probably will not recognize the page as relevant to the reader’s question, and even if it does show up in search results, the reader may not recognize it as relevant.

          Context, as they say, is everything.

          And even within a reuse strategy, while removing context from content can make it more reusable in the sense of making it potentially fit more places, it can also make it more difficult to reuse by making it more difficult to find, and by making it necessary to verify that the place you are reusing it does adequately establish the context.

          This is not to say that it is never possible to optimize for reuse without compromising the ability to inform, persuade, and engage. But it is often difficult (which, in itself, adds to the cost) and in all too many cases that I have seen, inform, persuade, and engage have taken a back seat to reuse, producing content that fails in all its objectives.

  3. Don Day 2014/09/02 at 11:00 #

    Reuse pops up in a number of cases. I’ve been focused lately on progressive disclosure as a valid case of reuse.

    In a non-optimized strategy for various scopes of reveal, web CMS systems may require a writer to create uniquely stored content for each scope (ie, title, snippet, preview, large blurb, full article). This is quite literally the solution chosen by the now dated COPE approach. While the information in each such field may be the same from a cut-and-paste consideration, it is still duplicated content.

    Intelligent content design attempts to reuse existing full-scope content in progressively smaller digests. In this sense, the information design is truly “write once; publish many” depending on the user’s depth of interest. Structures in the content enable designers to select appropriate content at appropriate scope for a particular case of rendition or reveal (particularly important for “adaptive content” designs that attempt to improve mobile experience by threading or scoping strategies).

    • Mark Baker 2014/09/02 at 21:44 #

      Thanks for the comment, Don.

      I’m not sure I entirely understand your point, but I don’t think that a user’s depth of interest in a story can be mapped to a simple progressive exposition of more of a single piece of content. People who are more interested in cheese want stilton. People who are less interested in cheese want mild cheddar. People who are more interested in literature want Dickens and Dostoevsky. People who are less interested in literature want Tom Clancy and John Grisham.

      People with different levels of interest, in other words, want a different quality of content, not just a different quantity.

      And, as far as I can tell, the near unanimous opinion of phone users seems to be that they hate and despise any attempt to show them less content on their phone that would be available on the main website.

  4. Eric Armstrong 2014/09/02 at 14:14 #

    That is a really astute observation, and great philosophical reasoning. Yes, reuse makes sense for different formats (PDF vs HTML, for example). But every time I write for a different audience, I invariably rewrite the material. So, I see your point, and agree with it.

    • Mark Baker 2014/09/02 at 21:46 #

      Thanks for the comment, Eric.

      Actually, I don’t think reuse makes all that much sense for HTML and PDF either (unless one format or the other is just being produced as a token). HTML is a hypertext media. PDF is a linear media. They are really very different and work in very different ways.

  5. Jay Manaloto 2014/09/02 at 19:14 #

    Hi Mark! Let me start off by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed your MadCap-hosted webinar on EPPO last week. It validated many of my own observations and ruminations in my own “killing XML” posts.

    Having said that, I’m a bit confused by this post. My most immediate question is “Reuse what?” After all, there’s a big difference between reusing low-level *text* and reusing high-level *ideas*. Reusing text in a snippet or conref might be a great nuts-and-bolts tactic. Meanwhile, reusing ideas or expressions in videos, blogs, and tweets might be a great social-media strategy. Both levels can be addressed independently and concurrently. So I’m confused about which level you’re addressing.

    For example, let me replace “reuse” with “redesign” — “Redesign is a good tactic but a poor strategy.” Well, redesign what? Redesign low-level names and phrases? Redesign high-level expressions and stories? That’s all. I hope this makes sense. Nevertheless, I like how your ideas encourage me to think or rethink my own. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mark Baker 2014/09/02 at 21:57 #

      Thanks for the comment, Jay.

      Agreed, reuse is a slippery word, and it is easy for people to talk past each other based on only slightly different ideas of what reuse means or what is being reused.

      • Jay Manaloto 2014/09/02 at 22:48 #

        You’re quite welcome, Mark. Actually, I wouldn’t mind if you defined less ambiguous terms to differentiate the levels of content reuse! Maybe something along the lines of “content replacement” (e.g. snippets, conrefs) where clinical reuse might be more favorable, as opposed to “content republication” (e.g. videos, blogs, tweets) where clinical reuse might be more foolish. But that’s just my two cents. Perhaps you’ve already devised something. 🙂

        • Mark Baker 2014/09/03 at 07:54 #

          Yes, differentiating levels of content reuse would be useful, but it has proved a hard nut to crack. Many have taken a swing at it over the years, myself included. But there are so many aspects to it that categorization proves difficult.

          Here’s one aspect of this: do we consider linking to be a form of reuse? In a hypertext environment, it is certainly an alternative to reuse. Rather than pull the text into this document, I can provide a link to the document where it already exists. So is linking a form of reuse, or does reuse always imply the creation of an independent document.

          And when we look to answer a question like that, we have to consider that the pointer that does the transclusion on the publishing end could be repurpose to do linking instead. So then where is the distinction?

          Also, we could do the transclusion dynamically at read-time by pulling the remote content into an HTML document on the client side. Is that linking or reuse?

          Suppose that we provided a link which is resolved not by changing pages but by pulling content into the current document. Now is it linking or reuse?

          Or suppose an architecture like SPFE (http://spfe.info). SPFE builds topic sets and documentation sets based on queries. Any topic that matches the query gets included in the set. Some topics might match the queries that build more than one topic set. The author of the query might very well not know this. The author of the topic probably does not know it. In fact, other than by auditing the outputs, it might be very difficult to tell if a particular topic appears in one output or many. Is that reuse?

          • Jay Manaloto 2014/09/03 at 15:00 #

            Amazing and draining questions, Mark. I almost feel like Neo being asked by Morpheus, “What is the Matrix?” I sense the same perspective-changing power or empowerment in asking “What is reuse?” and “Is linking a form of reuse?” If we’re sticking to “content replacement” or transclusion at the code level (and not “content republication” or re-expression at the conceptual level), then my personal answer is an inescapable “Yes, linking is a form of reuse.” Here’s why I think so.

            First, whether the transclusion of text, images, or formatting relies on a specific tag — such as [embed], [iframe], [img], [link], or [script] — or a specific attribute — such as [conref], [href], or [src] — I think we can agree that the common core is the URL.

            Second, although we can constrain the definition of links to only include [a href], we fall into a sticky and inconsistent [href] situation when comparing [a href] links to (1) [link href] where one could argue CSS-based transclusions in HTML pages and (2) [topicref href] where one could argue topic-based transclusions in DITA maps.

            Third, conversely, although we can also constrain the definition of reuse to only include the DITA-based [keyword conref], we fall into another sticky situation when comparing [conref] to other transclusion-related tags and attributes that don’t recognize or rely on DITA.

            The most consistent perspective that I can fall back on is to treat all URL references — whether they’re [a href], [img src], or [keyword conref] references — as valid forms of code-level reuse. This view should be resilient enough to include both static and dynamic, as well as server-side and client-side situations. So a query-based soft-linking SPFE approach should still fit into this perspective. Even if a URL reference is “used” only one time and not technically “reused”, it’s more consistent to treat a single-use transclusion or link the same as a multiple-use transclusion or link.

            So for the sake of argument, let’s accept this interpretation of “truth” for the moment. What happens? Does the sky fall on technical communications and content strategy? I hope not. Oddly enough, instead of feeling distressed, I feel strangely comforted. Perhaps the entire Internet can be reinterpreted as a massive web of code-level reuse after all. In this light, if such universal “content reuse” already exists everywhere, this concept as a special tactic or strategy loses its meaning as well. Maybe as meaningless or fake as the Matrix. Or maybe I just need to be unplugged….

          • Mark Baker 2014/09/03 at 15:31 #

            Jay, indeed! The URL is at the heart of the issue. A URL is simply a universal means of addressing content — either by location or by a query. The real heart of the matter is how addressable content is. The more addressable content is, the more people can use it, in more ways, and at lower cost.

            The heart of addressability is how many reliable facets of your identity can you expose, and how much information can you provide about yourself so that people can processes can use you reliably. Exactly how they decide to combine, relate, or display such content is then in many ways moot.

            Many reuse techniques used today create content with very low addressability, meaning they can only be reused by human inspection. This can allow you to do a very granular level of reuse, but that each instance of reuse has a significant cost to it, as does auditing and maintaining the collection.

            An alternative approach is to create content with high addressability. Such content cannot be as granular, because it is often hard to establish a sufficiently rich identity of a very small fragment of content, but the cost of reusing — or really just plain using, since such content is designed to be used many times — is much lower.

            This is all part and parcel of a sophisticated content logistics.

          • Jay Manaloto 2014/09/03 at 22:39 #

            Whoa, I didn’t know that falling down this rabbit-hole could be so fun, so I’ll try to hang on as long as I can! I took another peek at the SPFE site to get my bearings, but I might need to attach some real-world examples to get a better idea.

            For example, when you mentioned topic identity, addressability, and granularity, my mind naturally drifted towards WordPress tags and categories and Twitter #hashtags and @usernames. If it isn’t too far-fetched to draw a parallel between addressability and these various forms of query-based tagging, then I can definitely see the power of generating high addressability with simple low-cost tags, whether the “tags” take the form of blog tags, tweet #hashtags, or even topic index entries.

            On the other hand, when you suggested that high granularity necessarily means low addressability, does that apply to tweets as well? I mean, the 140-character limit on URL-unique tweets seems pretty granular and yet their adaptable incarnations not only in @username posts and conversations, but also in #hashtag trends and activity streams, let alone manually-inserted blog-post transclusions, seems to indicate high addressability too. Of course, I might be stretching the definition of an authored topic with this tweet example, but the technology is clearly here. In this light, if an identity-based SPFE or EPPO approach can somehow be combined or compatible with a tag-based Twitter-stream approach, the result might be something mighty to behold.

            That is, assuming I’m understanding the concepts of identity, addressability, and granularity properly!

          • Mark Baker 2014/09/04 at 07:56 #

            Yes, those things are all elements of addressability. More formal metadata schemes can also give you more precise and fine-grained addressability.

            Actually, the relationship between granularity and addressability is indirect. It is all a question of cohesion. A piece of content with tight cohesion can be made highly addressable. One with low cohesion cannot. It the subject to be addressed is very short, you can have short content with high cohesion, and therefore high addressability.

            It is worth noting also that too large a unit of content — such as a manual — can also lack cohesion — too much stuff in one box — and therefore also lack addressability.

            When it comes to addressability, the Goldilocks principle applies: the size needs to be just right.

            But some reuse techniques break content up below the level at which is has cohesion — the level at which it all hangs together and addresses a clearly identifiable subject — producing text fragments with low cohesion. It is hard to attach meaningful metadata to those fragments, which reduces their addressability. This makes reusing them more expensive and harder to manage.

            For more on this, see this post from a couple of years back: http://everypageispageone.com/2011/04/20/why-fine-chunking-and-rich-metadata-dont-mix/

  6. Justin Qualler 2014/09/03 at 10:43 #

    “Where I think the linguistic trap lies is when we start using the word strategy to mean logistics (“we need a strategy *for* reuse”) and it silently morphs into a goal (a strategy *to* reuse).”

    This says it all to me. If more reuse is a goal, writers will develop more creative ways to reuse content at the expense of the user. This is a type of thinking that I think tech comm falls into far too often–where our emphasis is on our tools, our “strategies”, our process, etc. and we have no thought left for our users. It makes our documentation more of a checkbox on a PM’s tracker and dilutes its informative value.

    Maybe you could expand on this in a future blog: “And if you want to have a reuse system that does not collapse in confusion and ruin after a couple of years of use, you had better pay very careful attention to the logistics of reuse.”

    • Mark Baker 2014/09/03 at 16:15 #

      Thanks for the comment, Justin.

      Good idea. I will add “logistics of reuse” to the editorial calendar.

  7. Alex Knappe 2014/09/04 at 07:21 #

    Well choosen topic Mark and a nice discussion so far.
    It hits the core of a problem we are facing in tech comm since the sole use of paper has diminished.
    I hear about all sorts of hypes lately (mobile documentation, videos, animations, AR,…), some of them dead ends, some of them the next big things, in my opinion.
    Yet, all those trends, hypes and spin-offs have one thing in common – they cannot use the good old paper manual style of information transfer.
    That means, as soon as you leave a media domain, the classic form of reuse (textblocks) becomes obsolete. Some types of media might share information models in between (i.e. animations/AR), but this is limited to a rather small amount of information pieces usually.
    Different media have different requirements on information transfer. Stuff that works in videos doesn’t on paper. Stuff that works for the web, will most likely not work for mobiles. This is an endless list of incompatibilies of information appearance.
    I’m not even starting to name the different requirements for different audiences or purposes. This would be going exponential.
    But our heart as tech comm specialists knows deep inside, that all information we are going to publish about a specific topic, has a common concept or common idea of how to things work.
    And this core of information should be our focus. This core needs to be reused. This needs to become the strategy.
    Reinventing the wheel sometimes is necessary as a tactic to solve new issue or goals – but the concept of a wheel and how the damn thing works is of strategic importance.
    The logistics of how the wheel is fit to its old or new application is also quite important, but it’s simply that: logistics.
    So, if we are talking about strategy of reuse, we need to talk about basic concepts. Concepts of how the world and the things in it work.
    It might be a bit of a far strech at first glance, but if you go for an example, it might become more clear.
    The concept: Mount a specific screw with a specific tools to a specific place on a specific device.
    The paper version: Mount the M5, 100 mm, chrome vanadium screw with a golden screwdriver to the screwhole on the far left of the X3000 Screw-O-Meter.
    The video version: Displays the screw being mounted with a golden screwdriver in the correct place on the device.
    The animated version: Does the same as the video – just with 3D-Data of the scene.
    The AR version: Mixes the above two and adds scenario sensitivity.
    As you see, the basic concept stays the same over all output scenarios, but the specific solution for each type of media is more or less completely different the others.
    While this is a simple scenario, there is much more information included as one can see at first glance. In this simple sentence many properties of the objects in use are included.
    There’s information about screw standardization, mechanical and chemical properties of screw and screwdriver, the metric system and a complete product with lots of properties on its own.
    Each of these properties could be used to link richly to further information or could be stripped from the output for a more experienced audience.
    In tech comm we generally talk about objects. Those objects have properties, can be more or less manipulated and have a purpose. Within our domain, we can use this information to create simple concepts that can be reused in a wide array of outputs.
    But this ain’t restricted to tech comm only. The same set of information is also essential for the work of engineers, service staff, marketing, logistics and even bean counters.
    So, in conclusion, the strategy on reuse is of mayor importance to the whole process of producing, describing and selling a product and should be respected accordingly.
    The tactics and logistics for this strategy may widely differ – but the core is universal for every product and company.

    • Mark Baker 2014/09/04 at 08:13 #

      Thanks for the comment, Alex.

      Indeed, much of the current focus on reuse (though not all of it) does seem to be driven by the fact that so many organizations are bridging the gap between the paper and digital worlds.

      Whenever we go through a period of transition like the one we are in now, we tend to see a proliferation of variations. In our case, this is a proliferation of media and devices. This happens for two reasons. 1. We are producing both old-world and new-world media. 2. The new-world media is new and no one knows exactly what form factors are going to emerge as the standards.

      Thus we hear a lot of talk about multiple channels and an explosion of new media, which is generally predicted to go on exploding into the future: more and more channels, more and more media.

      I remember making these arguments twenty years ago. You know what the hot new media were that we were going to have to produce in the future were: CD-ROM and PDA.

      The fact of the matter is that we are killing media faster than we are creating new ones.

      Now that phones are recognized as primarily a reading device, screen sizes are converging towards one that is good for reading.

      Far from seeing an explosion of new media and reading devices, therefore, I am expecting that we will see a rapid convergence on a single format: HTML5 (or possibly 6). Far from seeing an explosion of new channels, I think we are already seeing a collapse into a single channel — the Web.

      As Mitt Romney discovered, to his extreme discomfort, it is no longer possible to address a different message to different audiences any more. Everybody who cares can hear everything you say. Not just the 47%, but 100%.

      So reuse may be a temporary expedient to see us through this transition. Other applications of the technique will remain, of course, but it may be a much less prominent concern a few years from now.

  8. Rick Yagodich 2014/10/14 at 16:30 #

    I may be going somewhat down the same route as Jay Manaloto did here – I didn’t read all the comments.

    My biggest concern with this consideration of reuse is that it looks at reuse through a distorted lens. It is looking at reuse on a blob level, rather than a chunk level.

    By this, I mean that you are considering reuse to be about the whole – a blundering lift-and-shift job. But a good reuse strategy is about the bits. For example, if you were to package this same idea as a presentation, it’s pretty certain that you would want to include the sentence “There is a big difference between a truth and an expression of a truth,” within your slides.

    Having that phrase, and the several other key quotables handy so they can be imported into your deck, kept synchronised with a master definition… that is what a reuse strategy is about. (So, if you decided to change that line to “”There is a big difference between a truth and an expression of that truth,” it would update everywhere, automatically.)

    • Mark Baker 2014/10/14 at 20:07 #

      Thanks for the comment, Rick.

      The distinction between reuse of the whole and reuse of a chunk is certainly an important one. I did not intended the piece to talk only about reuse of the whole, however. I meant it to cover both. And I think it is pretty safe to say that reuse of parts is most definitely tactical, not strategic.

      I’m interested, though, in your assertion that a good reuse strategy is about the bits. This seems to be a matter of considerable difference between reuse advocates. For instance, someone prominent in the field told me the other day that you should never reuse anything that does not have a title.

      Certainly, there is a case for abstracting out certain phrases, such as an official product name, for instance. But there seems to be a limit to how much of this stuff you can manage successfully, and how many items you can expect authors to remember to use the variable for.

      Why do you believe that the reuse of small pieces is the better approach to reuse?

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