Why Your Citizen Developer Efforts Are Stalling

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PHOTO: Andrea Lightfoot | unsplash


The concept of “citizen developer” has been around for much of the past decade, but it has only really taken hold in the minds of business leaders in the past few years.

This is largely due to the confluence of several trends.

  • One of them is the widespread adoption of digital transformation. The skills and ideas to transform have to come from somewhere. In today’s climate of skills shortages, it makes sense to seek and nurture those capabilities from within in the first place.
  • Another trend is the rise of low-code platforms, which promise “to allow people who are not programmers to develop the software they need” in order to work more efficiently.
  • A third trend is the growing requirement for employees to be continuous learners. The World Economic Forum valued pre-pandemic that employees would need “101 days of retraining and upskilling” between 2018 and 2022 just to stay relevant and employable. Given the rapid changes since 2020, this requirement would have increased significantly.

All of this has led to the idea that the workers of the future will be incredibly well-rounded digitally, bolstering their business acumen and domain knowledge with new technical insights that drive continuous improvement in business-as-usual practices.

This is a popular but ultimately flawed definition of what makes a citizen developer. These include a definition that contains a few misconceptions that if left unchecked will thwart the whole exercise.

I want to spend some time outlining these misconceptions, because being able to recognize them will leave business leaders and their organizations well positioned to create lasting citizen development efforts.

1. Citizen development should not be an additional imposition on employees

Too many citizenship development strategies gone wrong require employees to do more, on top of what they are already doing for the organization.

This is why we see a setback: people are already at full capacity. They barely have time for the usual tasks, let alone special projects. Asking them to find time to develop additional skills that are ultimately peripheral to their daily lives is asking them in trouble.

Organizations with citizen development ambitions must first appreciate the day-to-day work of employees. If they want to prioritize innovation, that should be a formal exclusion. Google popularized this model with the 20% project, where up to a fifth of an employee’s time can be invested in side projects. Similar models are used by Atlassian and Apple.

Now, obviously, not all organizations have this luxury, but good results can be achieved in as little as a sanctioned hour or two. I run short, non-technical workshops that show ways to innovate with software that doesn’t require coding skills to use. The idea is to sow the art of the possible. I want people to return to their areas of work inspired to start a conversation and positively influence their operations.

In my mind, citizen development is about creating awareness of what digital business tools can do and how they can improve, if not transform, the status quo. A conversation can then take place about how to resource the build.

Related article: Can citizen developers fix information management?

2. It’s not just about employees building things

Too many citizen developer models focus on employees creating their own digital tools.

This assumes too much: it assumes that people in the company want to learn coding skills to seek productivity improvements. It assumes that products and tools created with a crash course in coding will meet organizational standards and will not require further redesign. And that’s assuming the company has the time to do all that extra work.

We’ve established that if an organization wants citizen developers to innovate, it needs to give them the time to do so. This applies all the more if citizen developers are also expected to create their own tools. Organizations must provide appropriate low-code platforms that make it easy to assemble and maintain these new digital tools, and that incorporate governance and compliance safeguards that ensure that whatever citizen developers produce is valuable. . Misconfigurations can be costly and easy to make, especially when people receive minimal technical training.

I always come back to the model adopted by a large pharmaceutical company. They set up a questionnaire to understand the pain of the status quo experienced by employees and set up a two-tier model to address it. If a problem was deemed simple enough, an employee could choose to create a solution from a template, and IT would review it and make the final push to production. If the issue was more complex, IT would run the release and ask the employee to review the tool before deployment.

This model worked for several reasons. First, it made their citizen development efforts more focused on generating ideas and engaging citizens without creating unnecessary extra work for them. Second, he struck a good balance as to who did the actual development work. Citizens who wanted to be more active could do so, but it was not their only responsibility. It has also created a close and productive collaboration with IT, helping everyone in the organization to “win together”.

Organizations around the world are rushing to digitally transform, leading to increased demand for software solutions that are both easy to use and powerful. The best decision your organization can make – if it wants to win the digital race – is to engage your people in the process and equip them with tools that quickly transform work.

Related article: What it takes to create a citizen development program

Chris Ellis, CTO at Nintex, has gained invaluable experience in SharePoint, Office 365 and the Nintex platform as a pre-sales solution specialist within the partner network. Hailing from Aberdeen, Scotland, his work with the Nintex platform has exposed him to the full lifecycle, from analysis and requirements gathering to delivery, support and training, contributing to a range of projects in various industries and in some interesting places.

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