Project Management

Citizen Development: A Joint Venture Between IT and Business 

11 Nov 2021
Sam Sibley
Citizen development is all about empowerment. But even the most empowered citizen developer needs guidance and support from IT to deliver a successful outcome. Creating a culture of collaboration is thus a top priority for organizations embarking on a citizen development journey. Sam Sibley explains how IT and business can work together to foster such a culture and make citizen development a success.

Image by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

What’s the most important requirement for a successful citizen development effort? 

It’s not necessarily technology skills, as essential as they are in developing new software and applications. And it’s not business process knowledge, although that’s obviously important in an effort designed to improve business performance at a functional level. 

No, to my mind, the most critical asset in any citizen development effort is a spirit of collaboration—a willingness on part of both the business and the IT departments to cooperate in establishing and executing the citizen development strategy.  

Citizen development allows non-technical and non-specialist employees, using low code/no code (LC/NC) technology, to develop applications and software without having to learn to code. It opens the door for citizen developers—non-technical employees in various corporate functions—to join the professional developers in IT in creating the software and applications needed to run the business.  

That’s where collaboration comes in. Think of citizen development as a joint venture where the interests of both the business and IT need to be in balance. Achieving that equilibrium is important. If business interests dominate, there’s the danger that a “shadow IT” function may emerge or, even worse, that the organization incurs increased costs and risks. But if IT interests dominate or if IT is reluctant to “let go,” the initiative may never get off the ground.   

And it’s more important than ever that citizen development gains traction across the business world because there just aren’t enough software developers to do all the work that needs to be done. Forrester Research, for example, estimates that by 2024, the U.S. will have a deficit of 500,000 software developers. Globally, that number is several times higher.  

Citizen development acts like a pressure valve to this gathering crisis. It allows IT to “outsource” certain development work, thus reducing its backlog of development projects. And it allows the business to “jump the queue,” to move forward on important development efforts rather than wait for IT to catch up. 

But the business also needs appropriate guardrails to ensure its efforts are aligned with the organization’s broader IT strategy and governance policies. These policies must address issues that are critical to any organization:   

  • Data – including what data will be used, where it will come from, where it will be housed, and ensuring it conforms to privacy requirements. 
  • Security – making sure that applications and related data are safe, secure, and hardened against cyber-attacks.  
  • Costs – avoiding duplicate costs and taking advantage of IT’s existing vendor relationships.  
  • Governance – ensuring the application aligns with the organization’s quality and system standards.   

It’s the responsibility of the IT department to provide these guidelines and maintain oversight of the organization’s citizen development initiatives. IT can also guide the business in deciding what projects to take on using a simple decision matrix in which one axis represents technical complexity and the other axis represents risk. 

Projects of high technical complexity and high risk should remain with IT, while those of low complexity/low risk can be taken on by the business. Projects that land in the other two quadrants should be discussed and perhaps developed as a joint initiative between IT and the business. 

PMI offers such a decision matrix in our PMI Citizen Developer Practitioner course. All our citizen development offerings, in fact, are designed to help organizations optimize their use of LC/NC technology while avoiding the pitfalls that can accompany program implementation. 

Here, for example, are some practical steps organizations can take to make sure their citizen development initiatives are appropriately supported:  

  • Establish a master list of authorized data sources with a network of APIs to guide citizen developers and to create a robust IT ecosystem. This ensures alignment with IT right from the start and mitigates security risks.  
  • Prioritize which applications will be built by citizen developers and set guidelines for citizen developer output, including how much of their time should be allocated to application development.  
  • Establish a sandbox: a safe testing and experimentation environment where citizen developers can hone their skills and start building applications with minimal risk. 
  • Provide clear instructions for how to go about deploying an application, including IT’s role in running security and compliance tests, managing imports and migrations, and announcing a new release. 
  • Set clear KPIs for testing, including expected standards around quality, performance, and compliance. 

This kind of governance support isn’t meant to limit citizen developers. In fact, it’s intended to serve exactly the opposite purpose: it provides the guardrails the business needs to derive maximum benefit from citizen development. It contributes to a culture of mutual respect and collaboration that ensures that citizen development takes its rightful place in the technology toolkit of any organization. 

Sam Sibley Sam Sibley