Cracking the Citizen Development Code

Cracking the Citizen Development Code
Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash

When Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle stood up in front of an executive summit and announced, “We are as much a tech company as we are a pizza company,” he drew attention to an evolutionary phenomenon that has transformed the way companies function.

Technology has so deeply penetrated every aspect of business, from customer service to accounting to the factory floor, that nearly any organization could describe itself as a technology company. Yet despite the technological advances that have improved productivity, reduced costs, and enhanced quality at all levels of organizations across industries, the way business and IT work together — or don’t — has largely remained the same.

Rather than deal with the delays that often arise in working with overloaded IT departments, many lines of business (LOBs) go it alone, hiring their own technical teams and building their own custom solutions. This “rogue development” or “citizen development” has raised a series of risks and concerns, leaving organizations with the question “How can we efficiently meet business’ technology needs without placing additional pressures on IT?”

Rise of the DIY Culture

The idea of circumventing IT to meet a business’ deadlines — and the potential consequences thereof — is nothing new. LOBs have been purchasing and implementing their own SaaS systems for years. In cases where those systems prove to be ineffective without the proper data, the business calls IT, which is saddled with the task of integrating an unsanctioned solution into their data architecture (or refusing the request).

To cite another example, back when Sharepoint first became popular, the platform was so easy to implement that individual lines of business lined up to purchase their own licenses. In some cases, hundreds of one-off Sharepoint instances appeared within the same company, with little or no communication between them, and the high costs of maintaining multiple siloed implementations offset many of the productivity gains that the app enabled.

Today, IT departments are more tightly stretched than ever before, and “rogue”-minded LOBs have evolved from implementing one-off SaaS solutions to developing entire applications with their own in-house tech teams.

Filling the App Demand Gap

According to Forrester Research, escalating demand for custom applications and IT’s limitations in its ability to keep pace are the primary drivers behind the rise of citizen development. In a 2017 Forrester survey of application development and delivery (AD&D) professionals, respondents ranked “difficulty in meeting business requirements on time” as their No. 1 challenge in building custom applications using traditional coding approaches. When asked whether low-code development helps them address their challenges, 41 percent confirmed some kind of improvement.

Gartner Research Director Adrian Leow concurs that enterprises find it challenging to keep pace with increasing demand for applications — particularly mobile apps. "Many IT teams will have significant backlogs of application work that need completing, which increases the risk of lines of business going around IT to get what they want sooner," he said at a 2017 app development summit. "Development teams need to rethink their priorities and span of control over mobile app development or risk further erosion of IT budgets and the perceived value of IT development."

Risks of Citizen Development

Obviously, citizen development in low-code environments offers a number of advantages — faster delivery of apps, increased user satisfaction, and freedom for IT to focus on more complex projects. However, giving “power to the people” in developing their own apps comes with its share of risks, including

  • Security hazards: IT departments are concerned — and rightly so — that citizen-developed apps will fall short of internal standards for security and privacy, leaving corporate data vulnerable to hackers.
  • Compliance risk: Citizen developers may not be familiar with the details of abiding by compliance regulations such as HIPAA, Know Your Customer (KYC), GDPR, and the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, possibly exposing the organization to fines and lawsuits.
  • Governance concerns: Enabling each business group to create its own apps could give rise to a “Wild West” scenario, where duplicated efforts abound and data silos spring up regularly, burdening IT with the task of managing a sprawling body of user-generated processes.
  • Questions about support, updates, and knowledge transfer: Many users are developing apps without forethought as to how support and updates will be handled. Business groups have their own workload to handle, raising the possibility that support issues concerning the app could be back-burnered indefinitely. Also, in the absence of a knowledge transfer protocol, what happens if the person who created the app leaves the company or transfers to another group? Left to their own devices, citizen developers could leave significant support gaps that could create headaches down the road — leaving IT to pick up the pieces.

Perhaps the optimal approach to citizen development versus the traditional IT route is not “either-or” but “both-and” — granting business users the ability to build their own apps with guidance and input from IT at critical points in the development process. For example, a business user may build an app’s basic framework and functions, then hand it over to IT to finish. Or IT can provide specific guidelines to ensure that users follow best practices (such as building in security features and having a plan for support and updates), then perform a final code review before the app launches.

Case Study: Creating a Code-Free Salesforce Community

Just as we saw with Sharepoint and other SaaS solutions, many organizations within a single company are purchasing one-off Salesforce subscriptions and customizing the platform for their own purposes. It’s not unusual to see dozens, possibly hundreds of unconnected Salesforce Orgs within one company, inhibiting the organization’s ability to drive value from its investments.

Recently a Primitive Logic client asked us to design and execute a “proof of concept” for the citizen development capabilities of by creating a Salesforce Community using “as little custom code as possible.”

The project entailed a list of required functionalities, including

  • Topic-based navigation
  • Implementation of case deflection techniques
  • Gamification of community participation
  • Simple, intuitive self-service case creation
  • Field validation for self-service cases

At the end of the project, the goal of delivering everything code-free was achieved. There was one feature that did have some value in being replaced with an easily-built custom component. Where the code-free solution was adequate, the user experience was suboptimal for users that may be involved in many cases.

The client learned some valuable lessons as a result of partnering with Primitive Logic for this project. Lesson No. 1 is that utilizing code-free options can save maintenance costs and will more often fulfill the requirements as-is — but only if the business and implementation teams maintain open communications. Another lesson is the understanding that “citizen development” and “code free” are definitely related and just as certainly not the same. Indeed, definitions of “citizen developer” can vary greatly, and it is important that all stakeholders come to an agreement on what it means for any given system.

Where to Go From Here

On the surface, the rise of citizen developers can appear to be a perfect solution for organizations facing a backlog of development requests. However, since giving those business users free rein in using their shiny new low-code apps can expose the organization to a litany of serious risks, the guiding hand of the expert will always be necessary. As Primitive Logic’s client learned in the project described above, “low-code for low-code’s sake” may not always serve the organization’s business goals, especially when avoiding custom code creates sub-optimal user experiences.

The key to making the most of technology resources in IT and business is having an IT strategy that bridges the gap between the two — something that Primitive Logic has been doing since 1984. If you’d like to find out how, give us a call.

Follow Kevin Moos on Twitter at @KevinMoos.

Kevin Moos, August 2018