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The historical foundation for reuse

The concept of reuse is not new. Many industries have turned to reuse to reduce costs, increase productivity, and standardize their processes. The manufacturing and computer software industries have been using reuse strategies for years, and the technical communication industry developed content reuse strategies in the early 1990s.


Reuse has been employed in the manufacturing industry for decades. Manufacturing companies do not create new versions of the components of their product each time they manufacture the larger product. For example, cars differ in design, but rarely in structure. A significant portion of the car will be composed of the same parts that are included in other models (such as the chassis, for example) and even in models developed by different car manufacturers (such as axles, tires, and spark plugs).

Software industry

Likewise, the concept of reuse was introduced in the software industry more than 30 years ago, but it has gained widespread acceptance in the last decade. Prior to adopting reuse strategies, the software industry created software in much the same way content is created today, with programmers creating their own code and sometimes copying and pasting existing code. However, as the concept of software reuse became accepted, organizations moved to software code that was modular and specifically designed to be reused.

Technical publications

Pushed by the need to develop multiple versions of the same information, in multiple languages, in multiple media, on tight deadlines, the technical communication industry developed content reuse strategies in the early 1990s1.

The technical communication industry refers to the concept of reusing content as single sourcing. Single sourcing implies that there is a single source for content; content is written once, stored in a single source location, and reused many times. As the technical communication industry started learning more about how to reuse content in different ways, single sourcing has moved through the following phases2:

1 Some organizations used Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) to reuse content in the 1980s but SGML-based reuse was not widespread.

2 Rockley, Ann. "Designing Effective Single Source Materials," Proceedings of the Society for Technical Communication, Annual Conference, 2001, Orlando, FL.

  • Phase 1—Identical content, multiple media

    Identical content was made available in multiple media (such as paper, Help, and HTML). Little attempt was made to differentiate the content or the presentation of the information to accommodate for the differences in media and usage. If the materials were modified to fit the media or address the fact that online information is used differently than paper-based information, the materials became quite different and were not single sourced (updates had to be made to two sources).

    As writers became concerned about the effectiveness of identical content used in multiple media, they moved to Phase 2.

  • Phase 2—Static customized content

    This type of single source material is customized to meet the needs of the user, the type of materials to be developed, and the media. The author deliberately "builds" the customized output from the single source to meet the specific user needs or output. Authors select from elements to create customized content (such as for different users or products). This results in customized information that is static (cannot be changed without the author's intervention).

    Although content is customized, it does not mean that the content is rewritten for each usage. Rather, sub-elements (for example, greater or lesser detail, or illustrations of screens in the paper document but not in the online document) are used where appropriate.

    This form of single sourcing produced much more effective and usable materials, but was also time consuming.

  • Phase 3—Dynamic customized content

    Dynamic content does not exist in or as a document; it is information that is assembled only when it is requested. It exists as a series of information objects that are assembled in response to the user's requests or requirements. Users identify required content, or a user profile automatically identifies that user's requirements and delivers customized content.

    This type of reuse does not rely on the author to build the document, but does rely on effective information models that can predict how to provide the appropriate information at the right time.

    For more information about this type of reuse, see Chapter 10, "Designing dynamic content."

Web content management

Those responsible for the creation of web content embraced the concept of reuse in the late 90s. As it became more and more difficult to maintain sites, develop consistent material, and deliver current content, "web masters" began to adopt content reuse. Initially, reuse extended only to banners and other visual and navigational components, but it has now extended to common content reuse where appropriate. A portal is a good example of dynamic content reuse.

Learning materials

The educational and business learning industries have also begun to adopt reuse models. In 1997, Advanced Distributed Learning began working on a reference model that defines reusable learning content. This model is known as SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model). This is a model for sharing learning objects. Organizations are beginning to adopt the principles of writing reusable learning objects (RLOs) and learning tools vendors are making their products SCORM-compliant.


The news media are using content reuse. Reporters write content once and elements of that original source are published to different media in a variety of formats and languages. Content from one story may appear in a multitude of media (in a newspaper, on a web site, on web sites of others who purchase content services, in PDAs and cell phones, on portal pages, radio broadcast scripts, marquee signs, electronic billboards, and in various languages).

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