Project Management

How Citizen Development Drives Business Agility

22 Apr 2021
Scott Ambler
The world has gone digital, but there's a gap between the number of qualified professionals and organizations' software and IT needs. Enter citizen development, low- and no-code platforms that give employees without software expertise the power to develop apps and solve their own technical problems. Scott Ambler shares how citizen development is driving business agility in the digital age.

Image by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

You may have recently heard increased discussion around the potential of citizen development—a global industry-wide movement centered around “no-code” and “low-code” platforms that enable more people (even professionals without extensive software or IT expertise) to deliver their own apps and technical solutions at a fraction of the cost and time. In effect, citizen development drives greater business agility by enabling organizations to quickly react to evolving marketplace needs.

After all, software has indeed “eaten the world,” touching virtually every part of how our society operates today. The world has gone digital and software developers, for example, bring the kind of talent that organizations depend on today. But enterprises don’t have nearly enough professionals trained to meet this demand.

Citizen development helps to address these skill gaps in the workforce—enabling teams to tackle their technical challenges in a structured and controlled way without depending solely on their over-extended IT departments.

It’s been remarkable for me personally to see the growth in citizen development in recent years. I actually began my writing career in the early 1990s focused on end-user computing, an early precursor to citizen development. I’ve come to believe that the basic concept—enabling non-programmers to create working applications—was sound; it was simply too far ahead of its time. At that point in time, many computer users were still getting the hang of using a basic mouse for navigation, let alone building software!

Today, of course, we’re in a completely new landscape with better tools and more sophisticated end-users. The rise of application development platforms requiring little coding ability has changed the game; one Microsoft executive recently predicted that 450 million apps will be built with low-code tools over the next five years. It increasingly sounds like a no-brainer when a new app can be developed within a matter of days compared to months.

But as liberating as this concept is, citizen development still requires a structured system and governance in place to do it effectively. It may raise a red flag when vendors spin a great story about the potential to develop apps very quickly—because that’s not the full picture. Yes, it is incredible for virtually anyone within an organization to be empowered to take an idea in their head and make it a reality at their desktop, but they still must operate within set parameters or boundaries.

And what happens next? Building an application is one thing; but true agility will require the need to continue to operate and evolve the offering, potentially even retiring it at some stage.

  • I saw this firsthand on my Disciplined Agile team at PMI; we recently needed to add a new search utility to our website to allow users to easily find trainings and workshops focused on agile. We had been reliant for some time on an antiquated system that relied heavily on email and administrative work, but the IT team had competing priorities on the timeline we had in mind for a new solution. So, we pivoted and used a citizen development platform to quickly build this functionality, which was absolutely critical to our core business.
  • We used this solution for almost a year before the IT team created a new system that could work for training offerings across all of PMI.
  • That story exemplifies the promise of citizen development to me; using its resources to solve a real and immediate business need, buying us the time to develop a longer-term and more sophisticated solution.

Another risk to keep in mind; organizations must be vigilant to avoid the risk of citizen development being implemented haphazardly and quickly devolving into “shadow IT”—the use of IT systems and services that aren’t compliant with company policies, which holds obvious consequences from an information security posture—not to mention discouraging more organizations from adopting no- and low-code platforms. Some of the biggest risks linked to shadow IT include:

  • Lack of data governance
  • Lack of security safeguards
  • Lack of ownership
  • Lack of quality control
  • Poor quality

In fact, one survey from OutSystems found that nearly 32 percent of organizations using citizen development have little to no control or oversight in their development efforts. In my mind, this lack of effective “adult supervision” is arguably another reason why end-user computing did not ultimately become a household name.

From my perspective, these challenges can be addressed by first developing a greater understanding of the right citizen development approach. There are essentially three kinds out there:

  • Pure citizen development - a user can use tools to create a new, straightforward app.
  • Citizen development with some degree of IT assistance - the user can mostly run with their idea but may require some support from a trained citizen development architect or IT professional. This also demands an agile approach, ideally a Disciplined Agile one, given the amount of collaboration and iterating that is likely taking place. This will likely be the most relevant path at many organizations.
  • IT-development - the third path is one where the idea starts with business users, it is determined that the project is too complex for a citizen development approach, so the IT team needs to step in due to the complexity of the project.

One of the great attributes that PMI brings to the table is greater clarity around the right path for your team and how to go about it, minimizing risks and potential pitfalls.

PMI has set out to help leaders and their teams to take these risks off the table and fully unlock the potential with our vendor-agnostic governance framework. We offer the guide rails in place to allow organizations to leverage citizen development in a safe and productive way through our thought leadership, educational materials and other offerings.

A leader can get started by working through our online Citizen Developer Foundation course to gain an in-depth understanding of how to leverage citizen development at their organization, including how to properly customize applications and address cybersecurity considerations.

As the world only becomes more digital in the aftermath of COVID-19, it will be more critical than ever to empower teams to run with technology-enabled projects in the most agile way possible. Citizen development isn’t a silver bullet, but it holds enormous promise in driving impact and solving tough business challenges, thereby increasing your overall business agility.

Scott Ambler Scott Ambler