All organizations have significant untapped talent and human resources. Given the right opportunity and support, workers frequently craft solutions that astound their managers. For businesses undergoing a digital transformation, this untapped resource can be the difference between success and failure. Thus, encouraging “citizen developers” to use low-code/no-code (LC/NC) tools to create solutions to everyday challenges does more than just shine a light on shadow IT and reduce the IT backlog. It mitigates hiring shortages, addresses the growing demand for shorter development cycles, and reduces change costs. Essentially, it unleashes hidden capabilities, driving innovation and boosting productivity.
Fortunately, LC/NC tools dovetail with the DevOps culture often adopted by businesses striving for digital transformation. Most LC/NC platforms provide single-click deployments that help users automate tasks to the point where they can build decision engines to support workflow automation. As development moves away from the head-down, highly individualized model of the past and becomes more open and collaborative, the potential to mesh with other cultural shifts is enormous.
Of course, there are numerous obstacles to achieving the full benefits of LC/NC. The first is determining criteria for selecting a platform, especially since most offer similar capabilities. One consideration is operational efficiency, which means giving priority to brands already in place. For example, a Microsoft house should take a hard look at its reasoning before using a platform other than Power Apps, as it integrates well with the rest of the Microsoft suite. In contrast, an organization not deeply embedded in Microsoft’s ubiquitous product suites may well want to look elsewhere.
Another consideration is aiding widespread adoption. The best platform is the one that lets the most diverse group bring its ideas to fruition. LC/NC platforms are highly “opinionated” in the way they implement functionality and the way they do things must fit with your people’s skills and mindset.
A second obstacle is security: does more individualized development and less oversight automatically lead to more risk? Having the right architecture that allows you to easily enable user security monitoring, segmenting users from data via sandboxes, using managed secure APIs, and training your users to better understand security concepts is key to answering “no” to this question — and possibly improving overall security.
And we must remember: there’s a risk inherent in human-generated code. We don’t want to introduce risk via LC/NC, but it doesn’t make sense to limit its potential by applying a faulty risk framework. Bear in mind that there is no such thing as provable security in real-world deployments; you need to always monitor, always probe, and always test your deployments to ensure security regardless of methodology.
The third obstacle is management. How do skilled software craftsmen fit into a LC/NC world? Can traditional developers coexist with LC/NC experts? Where does Agile fit in? What type of background should citizen developers have? What constitutes successful citizen development (CD)? How can citizen developers efficiently communicate with the rest of the business, other citizen developers, and traditional developers? Can a healthy tension between central IT and citizen developers be created and maintained?
Many of these questions are being answered by new CD control and governance frameworks; several articles in this issue of Cutter Business Technology Journal (CBTJ) offer suggestions.
The End Game
Whichever framework an organization settles on, organizational transformation is the end goal. Indeed, as Ronan Hughes suggests in his piece, the transition to LC/NC can be viewed as an inexpensive proof of concept (POC) for a larger digital transformation and that even a failed POC would provide enormously valuable information; for instance:
If it turns out LC/NC isn’t viable for your organization, time spent defining/scoping problem statements will aid in your long-term success.
If you identify a viable use case but cannot convert it into a deliverable example, you’ve uncovered a bottleneck in capabilities, knowledge, or process that is preventing this type of change.
If it seems as though LC/NC doesn’t align with your internal processes, you can use it to create apps like automated minute templates and diary management that assist existing processes.
In this issue, we closely examine the benefits and challenges associated with LC/NC and CD. Opinions vary somewhat, but the authors agree that as digital transformation becomes a requisite to compete, the focus must be less on how software development approaches clash and more on how they could (and should) coexist. These days, it’s tough to argue against something that can help businesses enhance and extend their software capabilities.
In This Issue
Noel Carroll et al. begin the issue by outlining several digital transformation challenges, including insufficient numbers of software developers, the growing demand for shorter development cycles, and the expansion of shadow IT. The authors offer seven recommendations for those planning such an initiative. Their last point is crucial: establish a CD control and governance framework.
Next, Ronan Hughes says LC/NC can be viewed as a low-risk/no-regrets approach to organizational transformation. He describes how CD can improve IT delivery and speed strategic development and operations then goes into detail about the opportunities CD offers to the business, IT, and combined business/IT applications. The latter includes more achievable outcomes thanks to a detailed view of what’s possible, as well as an Agile realization from conceptualizing projects prior to funding. Finally, Hughes wisely reminds us that understanding LC/NC and CD are critical to ensuring that we aren’t exploited by vendors proposing it as a cure-all.
Jacek Chmiel next provides a much-needed reality check on CD, pointing out that rather than digital natives, it’s digital era employees who have the most to gain from digital transformation technology, often starting with no-code and moving into the low-code environment of their choice. Chmiel suggests two solutions to the issue of poor flexibility in these platforms: having deep knowledge of the platform and/or augmenting with hard-core code. He also tackles the issues of IT security and vendor lock-in and then looks at the future of low-code from a very open-minded perspective.
Getting our collective arms around managing citizen developers is unquestionably a challenge. In our last article, Dave Garrett and Ian Duncan offer a robust framework from the Project Management Institute, which aims to help companies build business apps, build capability, support CD, and scale across the organization. The authors also review the benefits of CD, with separate categories for organizations, IT, and individuals. Finally, they provide three case studies showing a problem, a solution, and an outcome from real-world CD projects.
The articles in this issue of CBTJ were selected to explore all the potential benefits of LC/NC for businesses, from simply reducing the IT backlog to serving as a POC for digital transformation. As is often the case, the discussion around LC/NC is less about technology and more about new ways of working — perhaps even a new way to think about application development. The latest technology is always the one that promises to permanently change things for the better, but putting the power of IT in the hands of the people could be the one that meets that goal.