How to make a success of the burgeoning citizen development movement

Jim Burke Profile picture for user Jim Burke February 14, 2022
Much has been written on the rise of the citizen developer - but how do we get it right? Jim Burke of ServiceNow shares three elements that are key to successful citizen development campaigns.

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There's been much talk about the possibility of low-code applications over the past year — and it's all part of a wider trend of citizen development.

One stat is enough to contextualise the need for this new approach: there will be more applications created in the next four years than have been created in the past forty. 500 million applications will need to be created to keep innovation ticking on.

But we can't get to that huge number with the same processes we've always had, and that's where citizen development comes in.

Of course, not everyone will be involved — not everyone has the skills or even the desire to build apps. But citizen development will involve a far greater proportion of the workforce than has been until now.

So how can we get citizen development right?

In this blog, I'll outline the three elements that are key to successful citizen development campaigns, in my experience.

1. Select the right use cases

First and foremost, it's vital to not create a hill you'll never climb. Successful citizen development requires selecting obvious, actionable use cases that touch as much of your organisation as possible.

Some processes lend themselves particularly to citizen development, namely, those which are most regular and repeatable. That could be flow-based workflows, task management, or request fulfilment. It might be Excel driven processes, third-party integration, or system orchestration. Or it could be guaranteeing a single experience across functions in multiple systems, or access across the same apps and data simultaneously.

Some tasks, however, are less ideal and probably best avoided: we're talking those which entail unstructured data, unrepeatable processes, graphics processing, video/audio streaming, or highly-customized UIs.

What's important is that whatever areas you may choose to implement citizen development in, you need to implement design-led thinking as a way that IT works continually with the business, rather than just for it. Rather than a place to get a new PC, phone, or app, IT is a business function in its own right that should play a continual role in driving growth and efficiency. So, don't just create an app and leave it to stagnate.

2. Enable the Citizen Developer

As I've alluded to at the start of this blog, not everyone needs to be, or will be, a good citizen developer. More often than not, the profile of the optimal citizen developer is quite clear.

The ideal citizen developer is often situated in tech-savvy parts of the organization, or has a role supporting existing apps. They don't need to be an app expert, but they do understand how app functions can deliver value across business units. That means they probably understand citizen development is a partnership with IT, have moderate tech skills, and an understanding of existing business application infrastructure, data and processes.

Ideally, of course, citizen developers should actually have an interest in learning app development, too.

It's not just about finding the right people and sending them on their way, however.

Businesses need to really enable and empower their citizen developers to drive change, and that requires, firstly, adequate training and testing.

Citizen developers need custom learning curricula that includes organization-specific content, assesses proficiency through basic testing, and which increases the level of access as competency progresses.

And they need ongoing support from IT. So, it's important to establish office hours with the core IT team, offer app reviews by pro developers, and curate clear platform development best practices.

3. Put in place the right guardrails and create centres of excellence

Finally, language around citizen development projects often veers into the realm of ‘everything is possible!'

While that's true to some extent, it doesn't mean giving access to all areas to each and every employee in your business. Citizen development needs solid guardrails to work most effectively.

Formal structure doesn't mean slower, however. Indeed, formal structure can actually speed up processes by reducing errors and costly mistakes in the final product. These guardrails can also prevent costly so-called ‘Shadow IT' emerging and filling gaps.

So what do these guardrails look like?

From a security perspective, it includes everything from RBACs and ACLs, to scoped applications, inheritance models, solid login and authentication procedures, and web services security. And from a platform security perspective, it involves instance architecture, HTML sanitizer, system logs, encryption support, certificates, VPNs, domain separation, antivirus scanning, auditing, and edge encryption.

Whatever you choose in your specific instance, by starting out with the appropriate guardrails and building solid ‘centres of excellence' before you start the actual app development process, you're far more likely to develop reliable, secure apps in the long-term.

Examples of industries making a success of citizen development

It's important to note that citizen development isn't just a concept. Businesses in a range of industries are already seeing the benefits that this kind of development can bring.

One example is the legal industry. IT Leaders in the legal space are far more reluctant to buy out-of-the-box tools, because the specifics of their environment mean they'll only use fractions of the capabilities these tools offer.

What they really need is to just build the pieces they will actually use: these tools need to suit their strictly regulated working practices, as well as function alongside pre-existing legal software.

By creating custom applications and workflows, legal businesses are then able to help their clients quicker: fewer to no hand-off processes, the ability to create custom workflows for specific partners, and even the simplification of PA processes.

A second example of where citizen development is succeeding is in research establishments. These require platforms and applications that enable better collaboration and sharing, especially where sensitive data is involved.

For one business, these functionalities really came into its own during the pandemic.

The Francis Crick Institute was able to build a functioning track and trace application within 22 days on ServiceNow App Engine. It created an automated workflow across testing, results, and notifications, enabling Crick staff to work on site and continue their critical research work. Staff are tested every seven days, with automatic alerts and status updates sent out as required, saving a significant burden of admin work.

The low-code future is now

Low-code and citizen development have massive potential for organisations. They have the power to fundamentally change how we approach digital transformation, bringing on board far greater sections of the workforce, and thereby creating solutions that are really relevant to what employees need.

That being said, it's not a free-for-all. Businesses looking to succeed at low-code and citizen development need to put the right processes and guardrails in place to create an environment where low-code development really flourishes. They need to help develop budding skills among would-be citizen developers, and finally, look to create the solutions that will make the most difference.

If businesses can get those three elements right, they're well on the way to making the most of everything citizen development has to offer.

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