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Best Practices

Maximizing content reuse, reuse, reuse

Suzanne Mescan
Vasont Systems

This article defines content reuse, reviews the types of content reuse, and outlines how organizations can best leverage content reuse when working with structured content in a single-source component-level content management system.

Content management and reuse - the two go hand in hand. It is one of the key reasons for purchasing a content management system. The most effective implementations of single source content management systems lower translation costs, improve time-to-market, and maximize the production and management of content by optimizing content reuse. A system where content reuse is optimized makes the most efficient use of all available content. Whether a department is in the process of implementing a content management system or has been working with one for several years, achieving a high level of content reuse is the ultimate goal.

What is Content Reuse?

Single-source content management systems allow organizations to save useful "chunks" of content a single time in a central repository and then reuse those chunks as often and in as many places as needed. This allows organizations to use the same information over and over - i.e., a product definition in printed manuals, on customer service Web sites, and in CD-ROM instruction manuals - while still only saving it in the repository one time. The ability to work with content at a granular level and manage where and how it is used is much more powerful than working with content at the document level, where reuse is minimized, multi-channel publishing is complex, and tracking the content itself is difficult at best.

Types of Content Reuse

Depending on your system's capabilities, the content in your repository can be reused in two basic ways - Component reuse and Pointer reuse.

Component reuse is the most common form of reuse. The product definition mentioned above is a perfect example. The definition of the product is a chunk of content, stored a single time in the repository, and then reused many times within a document or across many different documents.

Pointer reuse is different. Sometimes instead of reusing a component, it makes more sense to use a pointer to reference that component. For example, imagine the editors of the technical documentation department decided that they do not want their authors to have access to change the product definition. If the authors need to use the definition in a manual, they "point" to it. The product definition will be in the final manual, but the authors have no editorial control over it. Pointers are often used for legal statements or product warnings - content that must stay strictly consistent and should never be changed because of legal issues or compliance with government regulations. In a robust single-source content management system, pointers are also only saved a single time in the repository.

How to Leverage Content Reuse

Global change and modular (or pointer) change provide two ways to take the best advantage of content reuse. Global change applies to component reuse. Imagine that our product definition is reused in 25 places throughout the organization - in users' manuals, marketing materials, packaging, and help documents. The system administrator gives someone within the department global change authority over that particular piece of content. If the definition needs to change, he or she is authorized to make the change. Remember that the definition is only saved once in the repository, regardless of how many times it is reused. Once a change is made, the system will give that person a choice - do they want to automatically (or globally) update all 25 instances of the definition? Do they want to only update one specific instance and ignore the other 24 instances? Or do they want to pick and choose, among the 25, which they would like to update? Whatever decision he or she makes, the changes made will be recorded in the global change log. The log tracks who made what change, when, and to what. In robust systems, all changes can always be reversed. The system quickly alerts the user when changes have taken place to the log, when something is pending, and if something has been approved.

Global change is the key to taking the best advantage of component level reuse. First and foremost, it eliminates time spent and mistakes made when updating individual instances of content. If we tried to update each of the 25 instances of the product definition individually, it would take a long time to search through all of the documents to find every occurrence of the product definition, and there would be a high risk of potentially missing some occurrences. Global change eliminates the time and the risk. The global change log gives users control over all global changes, so that they know when the product definition was last updated and can revert to that form if needed (globally, or individually as needed). Global change truly enables content to be stored and managed for multiple uses.

Modular change, or pointer change, is very similar to global change, only it deals with references instead of components. Imagine that 25 different documents reference that same product definition. What if that product is discontinued? Each pointer will have to be redirected somewhere else. The authorized user has the option to redirect all 25 pointers at once (in batch), pick and choose which pointers should be updated, or delete all the pointers. Each change is logged, just like in global change, so users will always be able to look back and see what pointers used to reference and where links need to be fixed. The log is important because it helps users to understand how a change will affect other content within the system.

Modular change is important for maximizing reuse because it allows reuse without editorial privilege. Content remains consistent because editorial access to it is limited, but reuse is still possible. This form of reuse is particularly useful for graphical elements - allowing authors to easily place graphics without having editorial control over them. Pointers also allow for template-like workflows, establishing a large amount of control over content and how the user's time is spent. The log minimizes mistakes, making broken references immediately obvious, so that content can be reused with maximum efficiency.


Organizations that master global change and modular change take the best advantage of their content reuse and see dramatic benefits in production and time-to-market.

Copyright 2005, The Rockley Group, Inc.