How much do we love reuse? Let's count the ways!

June 6, 2014 aregan

When you think about the amount of money learning organizations spend on training and development, it's surprising they don't look for better ways to make the most of their content. According to the most recent study conducted by the Association for Talent Development - previously known as ASTD - the average direct cost per employee for L&D initiatives is nearly $1,200 annually. What are many companies failing to integrate? Reuse. The most forward-thinking organizations have understood the enormous extent to which they can use their existing pool of content in multiple iterations, thereby generating positive return on investment.

But what is reuse? In her book, "Managing Enterprise Content," Ann Rockley defines five types of reuse:

When you see an opportunity, you grab it. In developing and assembling content, the idea is the same. An author makes a conscious decision to reuse content when he or she finds a course or lesson that would augment a particular course he or she is designing. In other words, this is an unplanned approach to planning content: You browse through your learning materials and as you find content that you wish to reuse, you're able to grab it and put it into the product for assembly, whether it's an entire lesson, topic, an individual table, list or figure - in other words, any individual element.

Here, you have planned reuse where content is automatically inserted. Certain content and functions in the system are automatically generated and inserted to allow for greater reuse. For instance, if you were to incorporate a figure into a specific lesson, auto-numbering allows you to use a token item that potentially already has a number attached to it, but the systematic approach provides an appropriate numerical value, such as "figure 1," "figure 2," "figure 3" and so on, without the designer having to adjust it manually. The same logic is used when you reuse steps, making it much more convenient to structure content.

Reused content can only be changed by a certain number of people who have the authority to modify the content. This usually includes disclaimers, legal language, definitions and other items that aren't typically open to interpretation or compliance policies demand that it remains the same. In the simplest terms, these types of content generally shouldn't be altered by designers. However, system administrators have the exclusive ability to access all types of content, unless a designer is granted permission. In most cases, learning materials are by default available to all users, and it's up to the author to include or exclude individuals by making an item read-only.

Reused content can be changed. This can be thought of as the alchemy of the content reuse world - only you're not turning lead into gold. You take an item from another source, adapt it and transform it into something new. Designers use a particular item to inspire them to create content that is similar, but adapted to a new context. Taking into consideration that designers are creative people, they often have the desire to rework certain content to make it fit their style or their approach to development, which derivative reuse supports. Ideally, derivative reuse is your last resort because a particular lesson or figure had to be changed for the sake of integrity, instead of your personal preference in phrasing or design.

Multiple reusable elements are used to make another element. If you were paying attention in high school chemistry class, you'll remember the periodic table of the elements. What do we use it for? Besides driving teenagers crazy, it helps us understand H2O - two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom make water, which is good. But if we rearrange these atoms to make HO2, we get hydroperoxyl, which contributes to ozone depletion. Nested reuse is far less cataclysmic than chemistry and actually helps designers create dynamic content by creating something new from smaller existing pieces.

And here are a couple of our own types of reuse:

Filtered (conditional)
Different versions of the content can be distributed for different outputs and audiences. Think about the way various kinds of entertainment are "filtered" for particular consumers. Movies, for example, are rated according to what's appropriate for a certain age group or by level of maturity, and they can be altered depending on whether they're shown in a theater or on broadcast television. Learning content is less about morality and more about what the intended users need, whether they're an instructor, learner, developer, IT professional or quality assurance technician.

The structure of the material is reused but the content is unique. You can see this illustrated in organizations that have created templates that can be used in multiple courses. How does this help designers? Simply enough, it gives them the basic elements they need for common structures that they'll use time and time again, so that they don't have to spend excessive amounts of time repeating the same task whenever they want to develop content. If you're creating a course, for instance, you just need to integrate whichever template you want and then modify pieces of content as desired. Additionally, structural reuse is scalable, meaning you're able to create a template for a table, figure and even lessons.

Xyleme customers get paid back each time they reuse content. This idea of giving new life to your learning and development content is the ultimate way to do more with less. The greater use you get out of your existing learning pieces, the less time your authors and designers have to spend recreating the same content or making continuous alterations to items. Read how Nielsen utilized the concept of reuse to update its dynamic learning content. 

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