Are you recycling enough of your material?

Here in the UK, the coming week is “Recycling Week” where a national campaign will invite us all to recycle more. In spite of increased opportunities to recycle, with more roadside collections than ever before, it turns out that Brits are recycling less. And there is a clear psychological reason for that. Recycling has become too complicated. There are different bins for this and that and different ways of recycling throughout the country. In my part of Berkshire, you have small green boxes for paper, but a couple of miles down the road you have to put paper for recycling in brown bins. Where my Mum lives, it is in a blue plastic bag. Confused? When things become too complicated, we give up – hence the reduction in recycling in the UK. 

But what has this to do with our digital world? The answer to that came in a conversation I had with a delegate who attended a masterclass I ran this past week. Afterwards, she came up to me and asked how did I remember how to do all the things I was talking about. She admitted that she would use some online service one day, return to it a week or so later to use it again and had to “reinvent the wheel” to start afresh, because she couldn’t remember where she had stored her notes or the instructions.

That’s a common problem I see across many businesses I deal with. Processes that were invented to solve one issue are then reinvented when a similar problem arises again. Why? Because no-one can remember quite where they stored the details of the original material. Weak digital filing systems make it too complicated and time-consuming to find old materials. That’s just like kerbside recycling; it’s too complicated these days, so we are doing it less and less. In our digital worlds, the sheer variety and complexity of the material, together with the speed with which we work means we pay little attention to a proper filing system, and hence we have to keep reinventing things, rather than recycle things.

Many years ago I read a textbook for journalists written by a former editor of the News of the World. The book was broken up into 24 chapters, each of which was devoted to one type of story. The thesis of the author was that there are only ever 24 different stories, all that change are the places and the characters. You know the kind of thing…”A cloud of mystery surrounds…”, “A major row is brewing over…” and so on. Just fill in the blanks, and you have your story. 

The same is true in business. Rarely do you have to do much different; most things you do are relatively similar. For instance, yesterday morning as I was attending the last session of the conference in Hamburg the CEO of the company had managed to track me down. He was keen to thank me for my talk because I had done something “so unexpected”. I had used screenshots in my presentation which were taken from client sites of the company I was working for, ePages. He was impressed. I didn’t tell him (though now he’ll know when he reads this) that those screenshots are just gaps in the presentation that get filled in depending on the company for which I am working. Everything else is “recycled”. It makes a presentation look customised when actually it’s only five slides. It’s just as the New of the World editor said – all I have to do is fill in the blanks.

Much of what we do in business is the same. Yet recycling of material doesn’t take place anywhere near as much as it could. Part of that is due to poor filing systems, or undocumented processes, making it difficult to find the originals or recall what to do. Another aspect is the word “recycling” itself. Who collects your recycling? Oh yes, that’s right, the refuse truck, the rubbish collectors. We have a mental association of the word “recycling” with “rubbish”. Hence, when it comes to digital recycling, we become less likely to do it because we have a negative connotation with the words. 

The Americans use another word, particularly regarding digital material. They call it “repurposing”, taking something which was created for one purpose and using it for another. Hence you can make a presentation designed for one client and use it for another. You can use a blog post produced on one topic to be the basis of a podcast on another. You can take a documented process to achieve one objective to realise another similar aim.  And so on.

But none of that will work if you don’t have a good filing system making things easy and quick to find. You can’t repurpose anything if you can’t remember what you called the original or where you saved it. Neither can you repurpose a piece of content if it is amongst a pile of thousands of pieces of content, somewhere. Nor can you reuse a process if you haven’t recorded in some way how the original process was done. Hence, as my delegate at the masterclass admitted, it is often easier to start again. 

One quick fix to this is to get AppWise. This allows you to connect a range of services to Google search. You can, for instance, include your email system, your blog, WordPress, social media accounts, your calendar and your cloud storage, amongst many other possibilities. All you then do when you want to find that old stuff you know you did but can’t recall is go to Google and search for relevant words. Google itself will present you with a load of material that isn’t what you wanted (as usual). However, on the same results page will be all of your own material containing the search phrase you used. You will then be able to spot exactly what you wanted and get on with reusing it.

Obviously, you could save yourself this task with a robust and reliable filing system, with naming protocols so that you always know where everything can be found. That way you can instantly go to what you need and repurpose it.

We waste a lot of time these days reinventing that wheel, repeating tasks we have done dozens of times. Maybe as we head into “Recycling Week” this would be an excellent opportunity to review our own digital recycling methods. 

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