Reuse is an interesting practice. The idea behind it basically boils down to finding something that already exists that can be used to fill a need. If everything works out you can avoid the sweat and anguish that invariably comes with creating something anew. Seems pretty straightforward. Of course, nothing is quite as simple as it appears. And reuse is no different in this regard.
Actually, reuse as a practice and as an idea comes in many different shades. I had considered naming this post “Fifty Shades of Reuse” but I figured that if I was going to invite, and then disappoint, a new bevy of visitors to my blog it’s probably better that they have a range of interests including a love of cooking. Maybe then there is a chance that some of these new visitors, or at least those who have prior sense for handling ingredients and tools, will tolerate what they encounter here.
As with almost everything I address myself to, reuse can be considered on an abstract, theoretical level. On this level, it is possible to ask whether or not there is that much around that can be considered genuinely novel. Absolute creativity, it turns out, is extraordinarily uncommon because in almost all cases of creativity there are a variety of precedents and inputs that together make up whatever is being unveiled as new and revolutionary. This is true of documents, works of arts, manufactured consumer products, political convictions, or whatever. There is, as I have been known to say, always an antecedent.
Entertaining as some of this may be, I find that it is best to move on quickly to more practical considerations. One of the shades of reuse that gets recurrent attention is “content reuse”. This essentially zeroes in on the assertion that if you have taken the time to write, illustrate or animate something on a given topic then it only makes sense that you should reuse that content wherever it makes sense to do so. No one in their right mind, you would think, would tolerate the practice of re-creating content over and over again. And yet this bizarre practice is closer to the norm than it is to being an abhorrent behaviour that we occasionally hold up to hearty ridicule.
As one illustration from the past, there was a manufacturer of rugged military wheeled vehicles who had enjoyed great success with a line of vehicles that offered a number of advantages to its customers. Among the key advantages was the fact that the core platform vehicle had been consciously designed to support a plug-and-play approach to adding and subtracting specialized components to create new configurations. This would allow a customer to tailor their fleet to meet their unique needs without incurring the major support and logistics headaches that would normally come with such a range of capabilities. Reuse of system components, within a framework that facilitates this strategy, was an approach to designing complex equipment systems that was rapidly gaining ground – and this was over 20 years ago.
When I appeared leading a team to review the documentation practices on this project, we expected that their content would likewise be modular and geared to reuse so it could be efficiently reconfigured to align with whatever selections the customer made. It seemed obvious. But for a number of reasons this was not the case. I recall asking the question, slowly and deliberately during a review of their documentation practices: “Let me get this straight, you rewrite the content for each of the configurations that your customers select?” They had an answer ready: “Not exactly. We do copy and paste as much text and as many illustrations as we can.” I think my immediate response betrayed some frustration on my part. “How charming” is what I recall saying. And this I followed with “How do you track down the content that will need to be modified when something changes in the base platform configuration?”
It was around this time that we put forward some suggestions on how they could modernize and rationalize their content holdings so that it really could be produced, managed and maintained in a way that mirrored the design of their equipment. The savings would be massive because the level of content reuse across the different configurations hovered between 60% and 90% depending on the configuration. What this meant was that once a base configuration was completely documented, and its content was rationalized internally to maximize the reuse of standardized text and illustration, then it would provide up to 90% of the content needed to complete the documentation for another configuration. The savings and efficiencies were staggering when compared to what was being done at the time with tedious cutting-and-pasting.
When I sketched out the alternative to their current practices, the senior manager overseeing this documentation group was skeptical and used the tried and true method of feigning management prudence and requiring that a more detailed business case be prepared before any actions would be taken. By this time, I had grown very tired of this rhetorical posture and being a brash young buck I immediately fired back with “No, I don’t think so. I have a better idea. I would like you to prepare a business case that explains how wasting time and money by creating and maintaining redundant content is a good idea. Please also include information on why the reduced equipment availability, elevated repair costs, and increased safety risk to operators are an acceptable outcome of your current practices.” As occurred on each occasion when I deployed this counter-argument, in the military and elsewhere, things got a little animated at around this time.
So it is that content reuse is one side to the practice of reuse and one that merits a lot of attention. It is fully astounding at times how much improvement can be made through the application of even a little bit of discipline to how content is designed and managed so that reuse can be done efficiently and effectively. There are many more sides to reuse, such as technology reuse which, as in the example of our wheeled equipment vehicle above, can be deployed to make systems more scalable, more extensible and more maintainable. But for now, I would like to keep my eye on the joys of content reuse.
And this brings me to the relatively new book DITA Metrics 101 by my colleague and good friend Mark Lewis. It is a practical guide to identifying, and more importantly quantifying, the specific ways in which content reuse can deliver tangible benefits to an organization. Among the things that recommends this book is that it really does zero in on the details that a documentation team can use to enumerate how they will leverage content reuse to streamline their activities, to save money and to deliver higher quality information products. The practical examples provided in DITA Metrics 101 equip readers with a framework to plan out their approach to modernizing and rationalizing their content, and to prepare the associated business case. It is certainly to be recommended over my more confrontational and definitely more explosive rhetorical manoeuvres as touched upon in the above project recollection. Also associated with the DITA Metrics 101 book is a set of spreadsheet templates that can be acquired separately so that a project team can jump right in and start exploring their future benefits. See ditametrics101.com for more information.
Now the name of Mark’s book DITA Metrics 101 does highlight one acronym that we should deconstruct for those readers who may not be familiar with it. This is DITA, or the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. I will need to come back to DITA on a separate occasion, but one story can help to situate it for the uninitiated. I was walking by the river in the parkland behind my house when I was confronted by the last question you would expect in such a location – “What is DITA?” Perhaps because I was caught off guard, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind – “It’s a collection of recycled SGML dirty tricks that help people to handle content that has been optimized for reuse.” Needless to say, this answer just made things worse for my sylvan inquisitor.
Sometimes, however, the first answer is better than it first appears. Basically by invoking the memory of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), I was summoning up a key truth that a generation of content technology specialists had invested great energy and imagination in addressing the challenges that emerge when you really try to rationalize your content so as to bring to bear effective automation in support of a modernized content process. And the people who were behind the origins of DITA were definitely veterans from these earlier adventures and DITA reflects this heritage in many ways. Now some DITA features are not what we would usually term beautiful or elegant, hence my use of the phrase SGML dirty tricks, but they do have the advantage that they work when deployed as part of the overall DITA solution framework. And in general, we shouldn't quibble too much about something that works.
And this brings us to another form of reuse – the reuse of past experience and evolving knowledge that is really only available from a community of practitioners who are organized in a way that facilitates sharing. The DITA community fits this description. So when any organization takes up the DITA standard and its associated reference solution framework they are in effect reusing an approach that has a long heritage. And by their efforts, they will hopefully contribute new insights to the store of reusable knowledge that will be available to those that come after them.
At the CM Strategies / DITA North America conference, convened in Providence RI in April of 2013, I delivered a presentation on this topic. There was a little extra excitement when my presentation was interrupted 5 minutes in by an evacuation order due to a security situation just outside the conference center. We were able to reconvene after a few minutes and we started more or less where we left off. I noticed, after the fact, that the interruption did in fact knock me off stride and while I had plenty to say on the topic (as usual) I did not return to all the points that I had planned out in my notes. I have consequently promised to prepare an article for the Center for Information Development Management (CIDM) newsletter. The slides - slightly augmented - are below...