Transforming Citizen Development in 2023 and Beyond

The last decade has taught us that properly built business applications have the ability to enhance virtually any business process. As a result, requests for new apps have drastically increased as business units want to improve efficiency. Unfortunately, increased demand for new applications far exceeds the resources available to produce them. Many organizations have turned to new strategies and technologies to close the widening gap.

Bridging the Application Gap

App development has always been the purview of IT departments led by professional developers – until recently. As digital transformation has taken hold, driven by consumer demand and business necessity, the need for easy-to-use, secure, and reliable apps has quickly outpaced most IT departments’ ability to produce them. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that there simply aren’t enough skilled developers in the workforce – a problem we’ve faced for years.

Fortunately, there are many new technologies that, at least in theory, should make it possible for non-IT professionals – called “citizen developers” – to create effective business applications quickly and at a low cost. Seeing an opportunity to close this application gap, numerous companies decided to adopt these new solutions. Aided by low-code solutions that automate much of the traditional development process, companies have simplified their ability to churn out software, giving users the power to design, test and launch applications for general use, all without ever needing to write a single line of code.

Developer Doldrums

Citizen development – in theory – is a great approach, since it hands the development keys over to the people and teams that are closer to where the applications are used. They know what they want, so they go and build it.

More often than not, however, citizen development, at least as we’ve gone about it for the past 10 years, leads to considerable chaos – with only the occasional wonderful result. With harsh economic conditions forcing companies to put every expenditure and resource under a microscope, anything short of certain success is simply not good enough.

In many cases citizen development ends up creating additional challenges for the company. Even in the best of circumstances (i.e., a successful citizen-created app), the aspiring citizen developer inevitably devotes less time to their actual job and more time to their new pet project, creating a backlog. What’s more, successful citizen developers may realize they actually enjoy the new role more than their original position and want to change their career path. Such a situation can be extremely disruptive and costly for companies that have to hire someone to fill the now-vacant role.

While non-IT employees may have a more accurate understanding of the purpose of the app in question, they don’t often think like developers when creating the app. Unless they have specific training in things like UI principles, data and process modeling, systems integration, etc., they’re likely to make mistakes that will lead to creating an unsupported tool meeting their unique need, but one that doesn’t meet the requirements of the larger organization.

Collaboration is key

As a global recession continues to loom in the future, allowing employees to divert time from their regular tasks to work on their own business apps is a risky proposition at best.

Take a moment to imagine this scenario. You task five different individuals, with different projects, in different departments, to come up with solutions done five different ways. What works for one group may not work for another, so even if all of the applications work well together (and that’s a big ‘if’) you will still likely end up with five different training efforts, five different maintenance queues, five different sets of feedback… you get the idea.

What can really bring benefit to the organization is the fact that these citizens really understand the problem and need. Thus a better approach may be to team them with professional developers who understand how to build effective applications.

In this scenario the key is not that these business users need to literally design the app, it’s that they have to work hand-in-hand with IT to frame out a solution. Whether you call this citizen-assisted development, or something else, a strategy of collaboration pools strengths, shores up weaknesses, and increases the quality and quantity of results.

Low-code platforms can still come into play then. In this case, though, they’re put in the hands of professional developers to speed prototyping and iteration, taking input from citizen designers and rapidly putting prospective solutions into the hands of users so they can provide feedback. This approach is much more likely to result in viable, supported, organization-wide solutions.

Moving Forward

We are already seeing companies cutting back budgets – this trend isn’t likely to change any time soon. Companies looking to succeed in this challenging environment will need to do more with less, and do it in a way that is easily measurable. This will require careful planning and investment in development and innovation, as well as a strategic approach to automation and citizen development. By keeping an eye on these trends, companies can position themselves for success in the years ahead.


Mike Fitzmaurice

About the author:

Mike Fitzmaurice Vice President, WEBCON North America - has over 25 years of experience in consulting, engineering, marketing, evangelism, and IT management. Having spoken at countless international conferences, hosted numerous expert sessions and webinars, he is one of the most recognizable and prolific members of the SharePoint community worldwide, specializing in process automation and low-code development. His 11 years at Microsoft included helping launch the first four releases of SharePoint and positioning it as a development platform.

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