The Rise of Citizen Developers — How Your Own Employees Could Transform Your Business

· 4 min read
The Rise of Citizen Developers — How Your Own Employees Could Transform Your Business

Meet Amy — a sales manager at a medium-sized software company. She’s ambitious, knows her team’s needs intimately, and has excellent ideas to improve productivity. But she needs to gain technical skills. So when the group complains about inefficient lead management processes, Amy feels powerless. If only she could customize their CRM system without coding skills!

The Rise of Citizen Development

Enter citizen development. This rising approach promises to empower business users like Amy to address pressing needs by building custom apps and automation. Citizen developers can cut through bureaucratic bottlenecks and quickly solve real-world problems with intuitive drag-and-drop interfaces provided by low-code platforms. But it comes with worries around shadow IT and technical debt.

Examining the Pros and Cons

So, how do organizations like Amy’s tap the potential of citizen development without compromising governance and sustainability? Let’s examine the key pros, cons, examples, and best practices.

The Tantalizing Benefits

Consider the hours wasted on manual workflows like Amy’s lead management process. By enabling rapid automation, citizen development boosts productivity exponentially. According to Appian, businesses can achieve an ROI of over 500% in the first year. One example is Finland’s OP Financial Group, where citizen developers built over 3,000 automations, saving thousands of hours in just 2 years.

Next, it relieves overburdened IT teams. With users empowered to self-serve, IT no longer acts as the sole application bottleneck. Citroën accomplished this by having business units drive citizen development independently. They don’t need to submit IT tickets for every minor change.

This directly ties into faster fulfillment of business needs. Due to quicker turnaround, citizen developers can deliver on demands unmet by traditional dev cycles. American Fidelity Assurance reduced application delivery time from months to weeks this way.

Lastly, the democratization of development unlocks creativity at the edges. Who knows what business needs better than internal teams? By empowering them to ideate and build, innovation flourishes. Spain’s CaixaBank tapped into this, using citizen development to enable 3,500 employees to pitch process improvements.

The Potential Pitfalls

But citizen development, if not thoughtfully implemented, risks turning into shadow IT sprawl. First, apps may need more quality and security expected of enterprise-grade solutions. An employee probably needs help implementing robust authentication protocols like single sign-on.

Next, fragmented applications built without coordination strain integration and support. If sales reps, marketers, and customer reps make disjointed tools, connecting them turns nightmarish.

There’s also the risk of proliferation without governance. As more citizen developers release apps, managing permissions, compliance, and data standards gets complex. Without oversight, you may end up with 50 variations of the same workflow with protected data being shared with 3rd-parties over and over!

Real-World Examples of Effective Adoption

So how can Amy’s company — or any organization — implement citizen development strategically? Let’s look at some real-world examples of effective adoption. Quandary Consulting Group has a great post listing a few impressive case studies.

Shell: Shell implemented the Shell DIY Program, which involved citizen developers using low-code tools to tackle inefficient processes and scale digital transformations. They automated manual processes, improved workflows, and enhanced customer experience.

State Bank of India (SBI): A manager at SBI named B. Ramkumar created a low-code app with no formal developer training. The app streamlined the collation of lead data from 1,500 offices across India, reducing time and cost while improving data accuracy and visibility.

Baker College: Baker College used citizen developers empowered by low-code tools to build custom solutions on top of their student information system (SIS). They worked with staff and students to create an inventory tracking system and continuously deploy new features on the existing infrastructure.

Cineplex: Cineplex used citizen developers and Microsoft Power Apps to automate processes and eliminate manual work. They automated gift card activation, ticket adjustments, and other tasks, resulting in significant time savings and process efficiency improvements.

Microsoft: Microsoft’s launch team used citizen developers to create an app for launching products and services. The citizen developers could build the app faster and more accurately than relying on IT teams, resulting in a more cohesive and efficient launch process1.

John Deere: John Deere leveraged citizen development to scale its tech stack and meet the increasing demand for intelligent farm equipment. Citizen developers extended the capabilities of their IT systems, enabling integration and automation across the organization.

Best Practices for Balancing Empowerment and Governance

It makes sense to first experiment with citizen development using off-the-shelf tools like Zapier, Make, Airtable, and Retool. Once you see the benefits of this approach, it makes sense to switch to similar tools your IT department can control. There’s N8N, a version of Make you can host and run yourself, a self-hosted Retool version, and Baserow that will alleviate some of the risks of relying on 3rd-party versions.

Of course, every option you choose has its own pros and cons. It’s a balancing act, like everything in the software engineering world. That’s why you need someone unbiased and qualified to help you make these decisions. A CTO used to rely on tools his teams are building might lean towards custom software, and a non-technical manager would likely use 3rd-party software that works, so choose who you rely on wisely.

The keys to balance are:

  • Start small, deliver quick wins that show value
  • Maintain IT oversight and control over critical systems
  • Foster joint ownership between IT and business units
  • Provide training and share best practices across the organization
  • Automate governance checks whenever possible
  • Implement reviews by peer citizen developers
  • Create a culture that rewards creativity and continuous improvement.

With this mix of empowerment and strategic governance, companies like Amy’s can embrace citizen development as a powerful evolution of their digital transformations. The future indeed holds businesses where end users are also the creators. As Steve Jobs said, “Everyone should learn to program because it teaches you how to think.” The time is now to start thinking differently about how work gets done.

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