Paul Saunders, Flatirons Solutions
Over the years I have become increasingly convinced that the majority of technical innovations that surround us in the modern age have come about because technologists are inherently lazy. Some of the most inspirational public figures in the technology world may have convinced us that they are naturally inquisitive and curious people, but the genius inventions of outliers like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are exceptions to the norm. Their phenomenal success proves this point. The majority of technologists seek incremental efficiencies for their daily lives because they are lazy people. Entrepreneurial innovators extend their own laziness to their target customers and deliver solutions that can make their lives easier, too.
Technology mega-trends are littered with such examples. Cloud computing has arisen because system administrators were tired of looking after physical servers, changing back-up tapes and listening to the whirr of a server room. The Internet of Things has sprung into reality because mechanics and service engineers are too lazy to check on the physical status of assets in person. Even machine learning is derived from the fact that users would rather have a computer do their thinking for them than make the effort themselves.
Consumer technology is also littered with similar examples. Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes have all prospered at the expense of physical retailers because people are too lazy to visit a shop. Even social interaction has become passive with Facebook and online dating replacing getting out and meeting people in real life.
Innovation in Technical Documentation—Why Content Reuse Plays to Human Nature
One such innovation in the realm of technical content lifecycle management is the concept of content reuse, which has been hailed as a primary driver of efficiency. As we know, reusing content from a single source in multiple instances in which it is required can rapidly reduce the time and resources required for document updates and publishing. Write once, publish many.
Reuse of technical content across documents or between technical publications and work instructions is a highly desired practice in many high-tech industries. Authors naturally do not wish to duplicate content between all the documents where it is applicable. Instead, they turn to technology to replicate the data as applicable and can be assured that content updates and publishing tasks are automated instead of manually driven.
The human desire for attainment of a simple life just so happens to deliver a return on investment that can be measured amongst many organizations in the magnitude of millions of dollars each year. Such savings take content reuse out of the category of a tool for lazy authors and administrators and into the realm of mission-critical systems and solutions for organizations worldwide. However, the concept of reusing and repurposing technical content for use cases outside technical documentation is still in its infancy.
Moving the Dial: Reusing Technical Illustrations in Training Materials
One aerospace component manufacturer recently produced a range of training curricula in which 75 percent of the illustration content is reused directly from existing technical documentation. This amounts to a 32 percent cost savings for the organization’s overall training project when compared to the costs of recreating and duplicating illustrations.
This simple use case of repurposing technical illustrations for training content is merely scratching the surface of the potential reuse of technical content for training. Today, the perfect technical publication won’t always easily translate to the perfect instructional event or experience, but the two no doubt share common core elements.
Identifying areas of overlap between technical content goals, context, and audience, as well as those for corresponding training occurrences, must be identified. When these convergences are clearly defined and understood at the outset — and the technical content is authored in a manner that facilitates reuse between functions as seemingly diverse as documentation and training — then you enter a whole new realm of savings.
Whether you call those savings efficiencies or laziness depends on your ethos. Whatever your angle, content reuse is all about gaining efficiency by playing to human nature.