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Ideas Made to Matter


Why companies are turning to ‘citizen developers’


With digital technologies permeating every facet of modern business, software development skills have become necessary for company success. And with user-friendly automation technologies now available, nontechnical employees are increasingly playing a role in developing business applications, helping to ease the ongoing IT talent shortage.

“Citizen developers” use domain expertise and creativity to develop apps, configure automations, and build data analyses that can quickly drive value across the enterprise, according to Tom Davenport, a fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and Ian Barkin, MBA ’06, a founding partner at 2BVentures, a venture capital fund focused on innovative business models.

“This is happening because more people are familiar with information technology, using it every day in the context of their mobile phones and laptops,” said Davenport, a professor at Babson University. “At the same time, technology is becoming more human-oriented” and is increasingly based on natural language rather than complex programming languages.

In a recent MIT Sloan Management Review webinar, Davenport and Barkin discussed the benefits of developing grassroots automation initiatives, the different types of citizen developers, and how companies can cultivate talent.

“The future of work needs these skills,” Barkin said. “Enterprises that have been championing digital and have invested in technology platforms realize they just don’t have the skills to deliver the full weight of digital transformation.”

The rise of citizen developers

Momentum for citizen development is building for several reasons, Barkin and Davenport said. Citizen developers bring agility and flexibility to software development, which leads to a quicker launch of digital initiatives compared with traditional IT projects that have a reputation for long lead times and scope creep. At the same time, low-code and no-code technologies, such as robotic process automation — software that makes it easy to build and deploy software robots — are now readily available. This allows functional experts from domains such as finance or human resources to design, develop, and deploy IT applications and analytical models on their own, without the need for robust programming skills.

The ongoing scarcity of software talent is the biggest driver of grassroots automation. A Korn Ferry study estimates that there will be a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people by 2030.

With the supply-demand gap widening and development technology more accessible, citizen developers can help resolve the long-standing disconnect between IT professionals who don’t fully understand business needs and business users who aren’t fluent in the capabilities of IT, Davenport said.

Empowering a grassroots approach

Barkin and Davenport identified three categories of grassroots developers:

Citizen developers build web or mobile apps using low-code or no-code software, either replacing or augmenting professional coders.

Citizen automators leverage tools such as robotic process automation to fill in gaps and automate workflows between systems that aren’t typically integrated. Their work replaces manual workflows and the need to toggle between systems, while also creating the opportunity for rules-based, intelligent decision-making.

Citizen data scientists create dashboards, visualizations, and data models, augmenting PhD-level data scientists and professional analysts.

Companies can foster a grassroots development approach in one of two ways. The first is via a top-down mandate, where executives develop a mission and strategy supported by ample funding. The alternative is what Barkin and Davenport referred to as “letting a thousand flowers bloom.” In this scenario, domain experts step up to solve problems on their own, planting the seeds and nurturing organic adoption.

How to make grassroots automation succeed

Barkin and Davenport said that organizations can do the following to ensure that grassroots automation drives digital transformation success, regardless of approach:

Create the right organizational structure. Organizations can draw support from three types of centers. A center of enterprise execution supports enterprise functions related to grassroots automation, such as IT and risk and compliance. Centers of excellence provide guidance for specific competencies or continuous improvement, while centers of influence target potential citizen developers across various departments. “To do this successfully, you have to take into consideration all these centers and find ways to create fusion teams that bring these capabilities together,” Barkin said.

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Lean into cross-domain collaboration. It’s important to get representation from different functional areas like HR, finance, or supply chain and encourage them to work together. In that way, you have the best chance of turning ideas into actionable applications or automations that bring value to the enterprise.

Maintain IT involvement. Grassroots development doesn’t mean icing out IT. Technology leadership needs to be involved to ensure that initiatives remain safe and in compliance. “Without the right training and right structure, many perceive citizen developer initiatives to potentially be dangerous,” Barkin said.

Embrace the four G’s. Using citizen developers starts with a genesis, which could include internal PR campaigns or roadshows that introduce the concept and help foster change management. Guidance helps people identify what’s necessary for participation, including training and identifying new career paths. Governance ensures that activities are aligned with business needs while mitigating risk; and guardrails, such as security protocols and scorecards, are built into systems and processes to make it easy for citizen developers to properly advance the practice.

Above all, get started right away. “This doesn’t have to be hugely expensive or require a lot of bureaucracy,” Davenport said. “Part of the appeal of citizen development is it can happen quickly, so don’t put a lot of obstacles in its way.”

Watch the webinar: How grassroots automation speeds digital success 

For more info Sara Brown Senior News Editor and Writer