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Is there a place for citizen developers in multi-disciplinary teams? How to make the new low-code era work

Matthias Steiner Profile picture for user matthias_steiner September 2, 2021
"Citizen developers" are supposedly everywhere these days, but do they realistically have a place in multi-disciplinary teams? Matthias Steiner of Neptune Software continues the discussion on low-code in action.

Image of programming code low code concept © StockSnap - Pixabay
(© StockSnap - Pixabay)

It is not easy to admit you are wrong. For years, we too, were skeptical about no-code or what is referred to as citizen development tools, because such developments were thought to be hyped without merit for any advanced applications (especially in the SAP environment).

Yet perhaps there is some merit in the growing trend to incorporating citizen developers – even if the hype is overdone around this nebulous concept that is supposed to fix all our IT bottlenecks and digitize the enterprise!

Our own R&D team was able to convince us with new solutions for our low-code platform including new no-code functionality. How did they pull that off? Previously, other players in the no-code space mostly came from the workflow space, providing non-developers with a tool to orchestrate a business process.

Adding no-code capabilities to a data-driven tool that’s already used by pro coders means that citizen developers can work collaboratively with experienced developers. The data-driven approach allows business developers to “customize” applications directly in meetings with the end-users. Think about it – this is potentially a shift towards truly agile implementations of solutions. No need for lengthy projects with blueprints, development, testing and waterfall methodology anymore – so long as the right guidelines and working practices are put in place, as we’ll discuss later.

IT attitudes are starting to change, too

While many were in the past reluctant to involve users in the development process beyond the specification stage, the harsh reality of “shadow IT” has prompted some introspection. Business units increasingly start to control their own application development efforts. Business colleagues equipped with Excel now construct elaborate macro-driven models that quickly become essential to their departments.

Users provision their own software-as-a-service applications without the blessing or even knowledge of the IT organization. Strategic use of citizen development means turning shadow IT into an advantage with line-of-business users are the primary stakeholders. By empowering those constituents to address more of their own needs in partnership with the IT organization rather than behind its back, they can reduce backlogs, satisfy requirements more quickly and enhance their group’s reputation.

Let’s also be frank, large enterprises have already put most of their mission-critical applications in place. The majority of their future needs will be driven by the demand to improve customer experience, enable better and faster business decisions and streamline workflows. These all lend themselves well to citizen development. Furthermore, COVID-19 has exposed the surprisingly strong abilities of many business users to serve their own needs.

However, unleashing the power of citizen developers requires governance and strategy. IT organizations must be actively engaged in the beginning and set the foundation, or the effort can easily spin out of control. Guardrails must be put in place for what business users can automate on their own, and oversight mechanisms established to avoid a resurgence of shadow IT activity.

Guide your citizen developers to maximize mutual benefits for business and IT

IT organizations can start by auditing the applications users have already developed. In many cases these will be in Excel, but many software-as-a-service providers also give their customers tools to extend their platforms and connect to others. These existing applications are candidates for inclusion in the organization’s overall portfolio. The next step is to identify classes of applications that can be developed solely by business users with minimal business impact. These are typically internal projects such as workflow automation, forms-based data capture, extensions to customer relationship management systems and cross-application integrations.

Companies need to start thinking holistically, by establishing multidisciplinary teams composed of both citizen developers and professional developers. These collaborations should use agile development principles. Citizen developers construct frameworks and prototypes with application building blocks while professional developers work directly with code. Developers need to understand that the use of fusion teams doesn’t diminish their value to the organization but accelerates the volume and variety of applications the company can build.

Is a citizen developer a viable idea on ERP projects?

Let’s consider an IT team that now throws into the mix a citizen developer for an ERP project. One could say that doesn’t make sense because we are not talking basic “Excel” here. But the question should be answered with a clear yes. A citizen developer should definitely be involved in ERP projects The citizen developer usually knows very little about technology, yet contributes with relevant business processes knowledge, especially with regards to ERP in this case. The business technologist is the only one, when it comes to these applications, that has the fundamental knowledge of how a process should go from end-to-end. 

Specifically with no-code tools, a citizen developer can help to craft process flows or create business rules. This only works in cooperation with backend and or full stack developers. A no-code toolset like the Neptune DXP allows to visualize certain areas of complex ERP processes but not all, and especially for special requirements, low-code or even pro-code knowledge is necessary.

The goal for any company moving forward is to simplify the app development process without reducing the capabilities of the apps that are created. And citizen development is a piece of the puzzle that helps connect business with IT – everyone, no matter what their field, can now contribute to digitization and mobilization. The future of enterprise applications lies in a complete package that offers everyone the certain possibilities - from no-code, to standard low-code, to pro-code. Now is the time to rethink your app delivery model and avoid shadow IT. It’s not about who is allowed to develop an app anymore, professional or citizen developer, it is about which team has the best collaborative model that can help deliver innovative new tools rapidly, from the simplest PDF apps to the most complex enterprise projects.

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