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How Citizen Developers Can Accelerate Digital Transformation

Published about 1 year ago • 5 min read

For years, leaders have kept digital transformation at the top of their priority list. But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most companies had to accelerate this transformation — whether or not they were prepared to do so. In fact, McKinsey found that companies had to act more than 25 times faster than expected to respond to pandemic-related changes like the increase in remote working and the shift to online purchasing.

In some areas of the business, employers were able to adapt more quickly. For example, existing collaboration technologies like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams were able to seamlessly enable the transition to remote work. And for the most part, companies were able to keep up with the increased customer demand for online services.

But as organizations have attempted to push more of their business processes to digital platforms, they’ve needed a significant amount of additional support from IT staff. And what many of them have discovered is that there simply aren’t enough skilled software developers to deliver and operationalize the transformation they’re looking to achieve.

IDC, a market intelligence firm, predicts that the global shortage of developers will increase from 1 million in 2021 to 4 million in 2025. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that there will be nearly 163,000 developer job openings each year for the rest of the decade.

Faced with this daunting skills shortage, organizations are increasingly looking internally for talent who can support their digital innovation needs. And they aren’t just piling more work onto their already overextended IT teams. Rather, companies are identifying employees who have some level of technical proficiency, and more importantly, an eagerness to put this knowledge to use.

These “citizen developers,” as they’re called, are non-technical employees who are trained to design and deploy applications that support the automation of business processes. They’re also known as “business technologists,” which Gartner defines as employees outside of IT departments who can create technology or analytics capabilities. According to Gartner, 41% of employees can be described as business technologists, although this varies by industry.

These tech-savvy team members typically rely on low-code/no-code development technologies. Low-code platforms allow developers with minimal knowledge of software design or programming languages to build a wide variety of web and mobile applications. No-code solutions, on the other hand, allow practically anyone at your organization to build apps that work with your organization’s current infrastructure and fit into existing workflow.

Fortunately, the availability of these technologies is rapidly growing to keep pace with the rise in citizen development and the push for greater automation. According to Gartner, the worldwide market for low-code development technologies is projected to total nearly $27 billion in 2023, an increase of 20% from 2022. Gartner also predicts that by 2026, developers outside formal IT departments will account for at least 80% of the user base for low-code development tools, up from 60% in 2021.

In today’s article, I’ll bring the concept of citizen development to life using HR as an example, supported by new research from airSlate. I’ll also share some key considerations to keep in mind when fostering citizen-led innovation at your organization.

Bridging the gap between HR and IT

HR professionals play a critical role in shaping the success of an organization. With the recent trend toward greater technology adoption, there’s a clear opportunity for these professionals to get on-board with modernizing their processes and embracing automation. Not only will this benefit the organization as a whole, it will also give these team members more time to focus on other business critical tasks.

A new study from airSlate found that right now, 70% of HR professionals are spending an entire workday (or more) on manual paperwork. But it’s estimated that by 2024, 75% of HR teams will increase their investment in workflow automation technologies. Some of the typical HR processes that can be automated include benefits enrollment, new hire paperwork, payroll, performance reviews, talent acquisition and recruitment, and employee engagement surveys.

Now, you might be thinking that you’d need to hire a new IT employee to oversee the automation of all of these processes for your HR team. But that’s not at all the case. In fact, any HR specialist or manager who can optimize their workflow using a spreadsheet data model, CRM integration, automated reporting, or even an eSignature tool, can be classified as a citizen developer.

That’s because as I mentioned earlier, the availability of low-code/no-code technologies is rapidly expanding. These tools can empower HR citizen developers — even those without much technical expertise — to quickly build applications and automate HR workflows.

And if airSlate’s survey findings are any indication, the vast majority of HR leaders are confident in their team’s ability to rise to this challenge. Nearly all (97.5%) of the HR professionals they surveyed believe that their employees have the skill set to successfully implement and leverage document workflow automation solutions.

Keys for successful citizen development

While citizen development offers many potential benefits, there are also pitfalls that businesses should aim to avoid. Here are 4 suggestions to help you get it right.

1. Get organizational buy-in.

It’s absolutely critical that citizen development is embraced as a strategic priority at all levels of the organization. Leaders, of course, will need to support and empower their people. But employees are the ones who will ultimately determine the success of this initiative, since they have ability to either accept or reject the prospect of becoming a citizen developer.

It’s especially important to get your IT teams on-board, since this shift will fundamentally alter their relationship with the rest of your business. As Deloitte aptly stated, “rather than being a technical order-taker confined to coding and fixing bugs, the IT function takes on a more strategic role focused on value-adding tasks related to governance, data integrity, and security.”

2. Put a governance structure in place.

Implementing a citizen development model simply can’t happen without first setting up a proper governance system. You’ll need to outline which tools will be used, how security and compliance issues will be addressed, and key requirements for scalability and interoperability. You’ll also need to establish exactly how your IT department will collaborate with other business areas in support of this new model.

Here's another non-negotiable: a system to track and prioritize your citizen development initiatives. Otherwise, you’re in danger of having overzealous citizen developers flood your organization with too many new solutions — an enterprise risk, for sure. Finally, it’s imperative that you create a measurement framework to evaluate the performance and success of your citizen development initiative.

3. Provide the right training, and align employee efforts with career advancement.

Employees who want to become citizen developers will need to undergo substantial training and skills development specifically for this role. Fortunately, there are several excellent online learning programs available now. But remember, you’ll also need to ensure that workers have their manager’s support and enough time to undertake this training.

It’s also important that you provide clear career pathing and advancement opportunities to reward these employees for their above-and-beyond efforts. This should also extend to your IT teams, who will unquestionably play a critical role in supporting your company’s citizen development initiative.

4. Utilize third-party expertise.

As you’re nearing the end of this article, you might feel excited about the prospects of citizen development — but at the same time, overwhelmed. It’s true that there are many moving parts that have to all come together in order for this to succeed, but collaborating with an external partner can help.

Look for a partner with proven expertise, ideally one who has experience working with other companies in your industry or sector. You’ll also want a company that can adapt their approach to your specific needs and vision. And although this might be a given, be sure to select a partner who has their fingers on the pulse of digital innovation.

Chart your path to digital transformation with citizen development

Citizen developers can play a critical role in accelerating your company’s digital transformation, especially if you’re one of the many organizations facing a growing IT skills shortage. There’s a clear trend in this direction (supported by the growth in low-code/no-code technologies) — and for good reason. Not only can embracing citizen development deliver agility, innovation, and greater efficiencies for your entire organization, it can also empower your employees and decrease the workload for your IT teams.

Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this topic!


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