TECH TRENDS: The Rise of the ‘Citizen Developer’
Updated: Mar 28
What is Citizen Development?
In simple terms, as defined by Gartner, a Citizen Developer is an employee who creates application capabilities for consumption by themselves or others, using tools that are not actively forbidden by IT or business units. Crucially, they are not experienced application developers but rather empowered business users who engage in application development even though they lack traditional coding skills.
Often tech savvy, these individuals are natural problem solvers in a company, who go above and beyond to improve their departments and businesses. Citizen Developers are highly self-motivated individuals who proactively seek opportunities to innovate and embrace technology in their day-to-day lives.
Equipped with little or no coding technologies, Citizen Developers can build websites and pages, mobile and back-office applications, provide reporting analysis, and manage assets, datasets and content.
Is it a good thing?
Yes indeed. With the ever-increasing demand for software applications leading to a shortage of software developers, the rise of the Citizen Developer can be seen as a positive thing, plugging this gap in an “agile” and pro-active way and bringing other insights and expertise into the development process.
The benefits this can bring an organisation include the agility and speed required to meet the demand for new applications whilst improving the alignment between the business and IT with a closer understanding of the needs of the business. Ultimately this drives a continuous improvement program, increasing both productivity and innovation.
What are the downsides?
Although broadly accepted as positive trend, the rising proliferation of Citizen Developers does present challenges within IT departments, whose responsibility it often is to support and maintain their output. IT isn’t always aware of these Citizen Developed solutions, so there’s no way to govern them. This can create great risk, particularly in areas such as security, support, and modernisation.
In combination with the increase in applications developed by Citizen Developers, these new ‘apps’ are often introduced without (or at best, with limited) ‘traditional’ structured development techniques, and are therefore likely to suffer from insufficient testing, poor documentation and limited skills transfer. This in turn puts increased strain on IT departments already coping with a fast-changing world in the middle of a global pandemic and can lead to hold ups and ‘blockages’ in ‘getting things done’.
Is traditional development becoming a thing of the past?
Not at all. Experienced and professional developers are still critical for successful Citizen Development strategies, providing the essential governance required to ensure organisations avoid “shadow IT”.
Citizen Developers are already technologically savvy and self-motivated learners by nature. It’s what makes them Citizen Developers in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need guidance, training and mentoring from experienced developers. This will help Citizen Developers gain new skill sets, more confidence, and learn new working techniques. The more professional development and guidance that can be provided to Citizen Developers, the better equipped they will be to align with IT’s expertise and the goals of the organisation as a whole.
What are the long-term implications for IT?
It’s hard to predict precisely what the long-term implications of Citizen Development will be. However, taking the example of Data Modelling, it’s clear that the boundaries of responsibility for IT are shifting.
Traditionally, a data modelling project would involve IT Business Analysts working with end users to identify their requirements and then taking those away to implement. However, it is increasingly the case that users are simply asking IT to connect a data modelling tool (e.g. Power BI) to their data, and then carrying out the data modelling part themselves. This is made possible:
Because end users are becoming very comfortable working with technology, and
Because the technology itself allows it. Power BI, for example, includes data modelling components natively, therefore automatically presenting data modelling capabilities to proficient end users.
The net result? Users can work more flexibly and iteratively, trying things out themselves, and getting results faster.
If Data Modelling is an example to go by, Citizen Development is here to stay, and IT will need to adapt and embrace it, but with an enabling eye on governance.
A successful Citizen Development strategy should therefore allow for continued adaptation and improvement, throughout the whole software development life cycle of the digital transformation of a business, but not at the expense of IT governance.
To achieve this, organisations should therefore ensure their IT governance policies, processes and procedures are both strong and adaptive. IT should also foster collaborative relationships with the wider business, working together to allow quick adaption to any changes that come their way without introducing additional risk and cost, thus reaping the opportunities for innovation and growth.
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