Citizen developers will position organisations on the innovation fast track

13/11/2019 Citizen developers have always existed but are now on the rise. Citizen developers are business professionals within a company who can, with the use of low code / no code platforms, build apps that respond exactly to the specific requirements of the company or customer needs.

Citizen developers are neither IT specialists, nor professional developers. This raises an important question: what if the fast-track to digital transformation lay within organisations?

Innovation driven by ‘consumers’ within the company is at the heart of citizen development. They are the end-user business professionals who, thanks to their experience and business knowledge of the company, know what is needed by teams and clients best. However, traditionally, IT leaders have avoided encouraging business experts to build their own software for fear of losing control. In many organisations, well-meant initiatives in the business, such as building apps or desktop databases, have ultimately resulted in significant unplanned support costs. What has sparked the rise of these actors and how can they best contribute to the transformation of organisations?

Customer expectations at the heart of software development

Customer expectations drive the need to develop software. Consumers of B2C and B2B services and products expect a great and user-friendly experience, fast answers to questions and multi-channel interaction. They are interacting with providers regularly and expecting real-time information. For many years, the consumer has been in a strong leading position. These consumers are people that bring these same experiences and expectations to work. Today’s workforce is more tech-savvy than ever – and not just the new graduates that are entering the professional world. People are installing smart lighting systems in their homes, communicating with voice-controlled assistants and using smart technology all around them. These people are different to the people that needed a technician to install their TV or VCR, and at work they want to have a say in the IT tools they use every day.

Finding the right governance structure

We have seen how applying the capabilities of tech-savvy employees to the software development process can offer substantial business value, but many organisations rightly identify that this is also a risk. What happens if sensitive data is accessible, by accident, for the wrong audience? Or, if a small app built by someone in the finance department gains broad adoption, but the data is not compliant with data privacy regulations? Or, if an application relies on a version of a database that requires a critical upgrade? IT governance exists to solve problems like these, yet citizen developers tend to operate outside of it.

At the same time, just bolting traditional IT governance onto citizen development, and expecting these non-professional developers to understand and comply with these requirements, is not practical and tends to lead to frustrations on the ‘consumer’ end. The strong focus on prevention and access restriction can make it too complex – or outright impossible – to get started, which means great ideas to improve the business ultimately never happen.

This is why an appropriate governance structure must be put in place to make sure citizen developers work hand-in-hand with IT. This close cooperation between the ‘consumer’ in the business and the highly skilled IT professional is necessary because companies need to make sure they create the most effective solutions, with limited budgets, short time to market, controlled risk and effective return on investment.

How to balance creativity, innovation and governance

It is time to find a more appropriate balance between unleashing the creative energy of teams, with the real need for IT governance. When large numbers of individuals start building applications it is crucial to see who is building what, which applications are actually used, and how many people use those applications. It is also crucial to have AI-assisted development and automated error checking, to reduce the need for human intervention from a highly paid professional. Finally, when applications reach certain usage or complexity thresholds, IT needs visibility into this to determine when the application needs additional IT stewardship. Ultimately, clear communication and a collaborative partnership between the business and IT will produce the best results.

The limitations of citizen developers

 While the potential value of enabling business users to develop applications is higher than ever, many use cases, still require the involvement of professional developers. This is particularly true in the domains of integrations, performance at scale and technical complexity. Often it is not the citizen developer’s skills, but the tools available to citizen developers, that create a challenge. Many citizen development tools are not part of a larger development platform and may not have all the functionalities needed by the end-user. Adding additional functionalities will require the involvement of a professional developer who will need to dig into the tool’s software development kit (SDK) to code around a limitation. Depending on the availability of coders and their familiarity with the tool’s SDK, even small hiccups can take significant time to overcome.

Endorse citizen development in your organisation

For citizen developer programmes to be successful, businesses need to have tools that provide a complete overview of apps created, deployed and used. Ideally, no-code / low-code platforms should give citizen developers an accessible way to prototype and develop simple apps, while giving IT full control to manage approval, security, deployment and monitoring of citizen-developed applications using the same policies and flows they use for professionally developed applications. For this structure to work and be successfully implemented, management needs to fully endorse the role of citizen developers and deploy the right resources to make sure citizen developers and IT can work hand-in-hand.

The rise of these actors within organisations clearly indicates that the relationship between business professionals and IT is changing. Management teams should open their eyes to the effectiveness of users creating their own technical solutions, which enable them to do their work more effectively and bring higher value to the client or to the internal organisation. However, recognising the limits of citizen developers is important; as is recognising the limits of various development tools available to them. Companies need instruments that enable citizen and professional developers to work together, as well as tools that allow professional developers to create modules that citizen developers can reuse easily. Most of all, organisations need to acknowledge and validate the function of citizen developers within the company. Companies should mobilise the right resources and implement a governance structure where they can thrive. Given the right environment, citizen developers will position organisations on the innovation fast track and decrease the time to market.

This paper is part of the #InnovatorsAtMazars series. If you would like to learn more about this campaign, please visit our website.

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