Citizen development has been steadily gaining traction over the past few years but is it worth the hype? Could low code be the secret ingredient to accelerate innovation and digital transformation in your organization?
Constantly changing customer preferences, a quickly evolving competitor landscape as well as the COVID-19 pandemic have created a lot of pressure on businesses to accelerate their digital transformation and innovate at a much faster pace. Digital transformation has become the #1 priority for many businesses but how can they get there when their IT teams are facing huge backlogs with no end in sight, highly skilled developers needed to do the legwork are scarce and so is the time? Can long-standing organizations with their enormous legacy systems compete with agile start-ups that can spin an MVP almost overnight? The current technologies in use at most long-standing companies are large and complex and any modifications to these require long hours of manual coding. The pressure on IT teams is immense. And IT teams, while doing the best they can, are reaching their limits as development requests outpace their capacity.
One way to enable the agile start-up mentality and accelerate digital transformation within large and long-standing organizations is to introduce low code (LC) solutions. Low code solutions (also referred to as “citizen development”) enable a user (citizen developer), an average person who is reasonably skilled at using technology, build fully functional business applications1. More recently “no code” (NC) joined the family referring to a platform for building software applications without coding. The interface of LC platforms is designed in a very intuitive way that allows users to literally drag and drop components they need, draw a workflow, easily connect a data source and test the application right away. The platforms provide users with substantial flexibility and customization options and most of them come with a number of ready-made application templates that can be used as-is and all you need to do is connect them to your data source. Alternatively, you can customize them for a specific purpose as well as add your corporate branding. Over the years low code solutions have evolved into advanced digital platforms which are able to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) as well as optical character recognition (OCR).
Understandably, expecting to replace your core technology platform with a low code solution would not be the best idea. But adopting a low code strategy can empower your non-IT employees to start developing business applications which will streamline their daily work or solve an urgent demand from business, buying time needed to develop a longer-term and more sophisticated solution. These small-scale applications created by citizen developers will over time bring significant value as they will be the drivers of automation and streamline the processes and workflows in your organization. This is how citizen developers can contribute to the ongoing transformation of your business, growing, at the same time, their skills needed for the future of work. And taking away these tasks from the IT team frees up their capacity and allows them to focus on more important projects that require heavy coding.
One of the advantages of citizen development is that it lets users focus on solving the problem directly at the pain point. The users do not have to worry about the code or wait for IT to develop tools and programs they need. They can create a solution themselves because they understand the problem (workflow, process) and low code platforms provide them with the necessary tools.
Undeniably, most businesses will appreciate the faster development time. With sufficient training, users are able to quickly build an MVP, rather than spending weeks or months developing an application based on defined requirements. Low code platforms allow users to create a functional and user-friendly applications in a fraction of the time and cost by leveraging reusable templates and components (why reinvent the wheel?). Thanks to these standardized components the amount of documentation that is required can be kept to a minimum. Faster development time means lower costs and increased competitiveness.
The use of standardized components also means lower maintenance requirements and better sustainability as less time is needed to review custom code and maintain legacy software. Think of situations when the person who developed a program or application no longer works at the company and how difficult it is sometimes to understand the hows and whys, especially when not properly documented. Low code solutions might come in handy also for experienced developers, in situations where using standardized components can save time, enhance reusability and reduce maintenance effort.
But is it for everyone? Can really anyone be a citizen developer? Most certainly not. While it is not necessary to have programming training or experience, a citizen developer must have an aptitude for using technology and be open to learning and implementing new tools; they must be creative, pragmatic, innovative, simply a DIY type of person.
Now you’re probably thinking that allowing anyone and everyone to build applications they believe they need would lead to a total anarchy and ultimately a disaster in terms of compliance and IT security. And you might be right. The truth is, introducing citizen development adds a new layer of complexity and without proper governance, enterprise standards for application development and security could be compromised and you would just create more problems instead of easing the existing burden. Therefore, a clear and robust governance model is an absolute must. When properly set up, citizen development efforts can materialize in a structured and controlled way in compliance with your organization’s IT and security standards.
There are numerous examples of successful implementations of citizen development in various areas of activities including government. To name just a few: Fintech start-up Revolut uses a low code user verification application for its banking application (SMS API with two-factor authentication). Heathrow Airport employees have developed numerous applications in low code, eliminating 75.000 pages of paperwork and reducing data entry by nearly 1.000 hours, helping the airport reduce its costs. Law firm Clifford Chance has adopted a no code solution to digitize and automate processes, empowering their lawyers to bring more value to clients by using their skills and knowledge, rather than spending their time on repetitive admin tasks.
How to successfully adopt a low code strategy
Introducing a low code platform is not something that you can do overnight. It should be carefully planned and prepared as any other technology project. So where should you start?
First, define your vision with citizen development: What do you want to achieve with citizen development? Think about what kind of business applications will need to be built in the coming years, for what purpose (and how many of them) and select a provider that offers the functionalities and capabilities you’ll need.
Define the governance framework: A governance strategy should address the who, what, where, when and how of an organization’s citizen development program. This is basically about setting requirements for secure business applications that will be built outside of the IT function, laying out the scope for deployable technologies, determining standards to ensure that data is secure, applications are properly tested and go through an approval process, defining responsibilities and ownership rules, establishing quality control, ensuring consistency across organization etc. down to ensuring that corporate branding guidelines are employed. Here the role of IT is absolutely crucial as a centralized governance center that will own the governance strategy, sanction the required resources, oversee and monitor all citizen development activities to ensure they follow the set guidelines.
Identify key citizen developers in your organization: employees who possess some level of technical skills or have the ability to use low/no code tools without extensive training. These employees should also have a thorough understanding of business processes and needs. You might want to roll out citizen development on a small scale first, for example within one department, and scale gradually.
Provide training. While the low code platforms are easy to navigate and are specifically built for those who do not have technical expertise, there is still an unavoidable learning curve. Training on how to use the platform and its functionalities are often available through the platform providers. But organizations must provide training not only to ensure that citizen developers know how to utilize the platform but also understand what type of applications that they can develop, have a sound knowledge of agile environments, understand information security and standards that must be achieved for the applications to be approved. A one-time course probably won’t do it. Only continuous training will ensure that citizen developers are receiving the support that they need and that they have opportunities for growth and learning new skills that will allow them to build applications that bring increasingly greater value to the organization.
Ideally, build a Center of Excellence led by experienced software developers and business experts who, in addition to establishing the rules, setting up governance policies, ensuring consistency across applications, will also act as a resource center providing ongoing support to citizen developers and developing best practices.
Start small and encourage agile way of working: Resist the urge to implement a big client-facing project. It is best to start with small applications that tackle manual repetitive daily tasks of your staff and help them automate and streamline their work. Encourage the fail fast mentality with quick prototyping, rapid feedback and reiterations to improve the application in response to feedback.
There’s a worldwide shortage of software developers and learning a programming language takes a long time. Organizations can leverage citizen development to bridge the gap and they are increasingly doing so. Gartner forecasts that more than 65% of all applications will be developed using low code or no code platforms by 2024. But don’t be tricked, simply buying a no-code platform will not fix all of your problems. Citizen development brings many advantages but there are risks involved. The main risks include shadow IT, vulnerability, security threats and lack of control without proper governance in place. Strategic implementation of citizen development is a kind of change that encompasses technologies as well as corporate culture and needs to be carefully planned and implemented to bring the desired value.
Low code platforms are designed to enable custom development rapidly but that does not mean that you can replace half of your IT team with citizen developers. Manual coding will still be needed. In some cases the traditional development approach will be more effective, in other cases a combination of the two will yield best results.