Citizen Development - It’s Everywhere, Unstoppable, and Good

By Mike Fitzmaurice

Citizen development – when non-programmers create useful software solutions – is excellent for driving business productivity.

It lets employees that own business problems to own – and build – business solutions. Unlike with software written by a company’s IT developers or outside contractors, citizen development involves a minimum of red tape and funding, gets directly to the heart of what the employee was trying to accomplish, and can make lots of people happy. If it’s done right.

It’s equally true that citizen development scares the heck out of IT staff, who fear all sorts of terrible outcomes, most of which can boiled down to three ugly words:

“Loss of control.”

Make no mistake, citizen development is all over your organization, no matter how large, no matter how small. It’s been there for years. Do employees create Excel spreadsheets? As soon as they type a formula or create a macro, that’s citizen development. While most Excel users don’t push the product’s envelope, there are always some, self-taught perhaps, who are really good at it. You know who they are: They’re always using Excel for new tricks, helping other workers debug spreadsheets, saving the boss when the budget is screwed up.

Excel is an example of a runtime environment. Your 2017 budget forecast spreadsheet is an app that runs within that environment. So is the spreadsheet that calculates bulk postage costs or tracks stages of customer engagement in this quarter’s multi-step sales promotion. They’re actually apps.

The employees who design, code, debug, and distribute those apps (which happen to be Excel spreadsheets) are citizen developers. You might want to think about them working with custom PDF forms, Google Sheets, SharePoint lists, and Salesforce custom objects in a similar light.

Apps or Smart Documents? Two Good Analogies

We tend to think about words like design, code, debug, and distribute as being the exclusive domain of “real” programmers who write serious applications in languages like C++ or HTML or JavaScript, thanks to expensive tools and complex environments. Those words, however, apply to citizen developers as well. However, programming might not be the best metaphor to describe citizen development.

You might think of Excel spreadsheets, PowerApps, PowerBI dashboards, and the like as being smart documents instead of as apps. Sharing those smart documents is more analogous to publishing than software distribution.

After all, someone emails an Excel spreadsheet (or loads it from a file share) and opens it up… as opposed to installing an application.

The publishing model offers some tidy advantages, even if they are mainly psychological. We all know the damage that defects in enterprise software can have on an organization, everything from unhappy customers to vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit. A smart document with an error, on the other hand, is pretty harmless, and can be fixed in a jiffy. Besides nobody expects someone creating a smart document to have a four-year computer science degree and an impressive array of tech-industry certifications, so the publishing model is less threatening to your expensive programmers.

Stay Close to the Problem

The departmental budget analyst who creates the budget-forecast spreadsheet, with all those summations, data extractions from last year and last quarter, roll-ups from team projections, and automatically generated graphs and alerts, is a true expert in that smart document. She knows much more about the department — and budgets— than anyone in IT. That’s the model to follow for citizen development, whether it’s for budgets or for workflow.

When it comes to citizen development, the best developer is someone who is very close to the problem or opportunity. Who lives with that situation every day. Who coordinates the work that addresses that problem Who pulls her hair out because current solutions to that problem are slow, wasteful or inaccurate.

The ideal citizen developer knows exactly what needs to be done, and where to automate.

What’s more, that subject matter expert knows exactly when the smart document or workflow need to be fixed. When assumptions prove to be wrong, or when they change over time. When processes change, due to internal or external factors. When there’s a better idea. That means improving the smart document or workflow. This might happen nearly every day at first, and then weekly, then as the process expert thinks it’s necessary.

Even when you have an agile workflow, you can’t go back to IT for constant minor tweaks to a professionally written application, and even when you ask for updates, it might take until the next two-week sprint to see the results, which need to be approved.

With citizen development, you don’t have to wait. Open the smart document or workflow. Edit. Save. Done.

Designed for Readability

When smart documents and workflows are created by citizen developers who already own the problem, they naturally understand what they have created. That means reverse-engineering the software to figure out the rules and process can be fairly straightforward, especially if there are notes or other types of documentation.

Contrast against professionally written software; only other programmers can understand the C++, HTML or JavaScript code.

What’s more, because citizen developers aren’t professional programmers, they often write apps that are unintentionally not optimized. That might make for slightly slower execution, more CPU utilization, or more memory – but in modern terms, that’s inconsequential. What is, conversely, very consequential is the ability to open up a citizen-built solution, understand it, and change it with minimal confusion and time.

Today’s Workforce Gets This.

The younger the employee, the more likely it is that they’ve built websites, the more likely they’ve done some scripting, the more likely they’ve worked with data, etc. While software development remains a distinct profession, it’s no longer a completely alien and arcane one.

I don’t know what a doctor knows, but I know first aid. Well, citizen development is software first aid, and like medical first aid, it’s often enough, and we all benefit by more and more people being able to do it.

Embrace and Empower the Citizen Developer

With citizen developers, whether you’re using the app metaphor or the smart document metaphor, the person who best understands the problem — and who suffers most from the pain — owns the solution. Yes, citizen development requires no-code/low-code platforms, but don’t focus on the lack of high-level code as the key to successful distribution of software from the IT department out to the workforce.

What’s most important is the proximity from the problem.

The IT staff, whether it’s staff programmers or consultants, are far away from the challenge, which is why they need formal specifications and detailed requirements. Your departmental employees are the experts. They know what needs to be done. All they need is to be empowered the right tools, enthusiastic management support – and protection from those IT professionals who fear losing control. Your best employees are doing citizen development today. Embrace it!


About Mike Fitzmaurice

Mike Fitzmaurice is the Vice President of Workflow Technology for Nintex, the world leader in workflow and content automation, and is its subject matter expert and chief spokesperson for workflow, business transformation, and technology matters.

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