Are Citizen Developers the New Intrapreneurial Corporate IT Team?

Consider this business colleague: She never studied IT but was great at Excel. Then she discovered macros, which piqued her interest to do even more. Now she’s regularly using data visualizations for decision-making.

It’s likely that citizen developers are lurking throughout your organization. They are business users who take advantage of available low-code/no-code business application platforms’ self-service features to manipulate data, develop reports and automate workflows and business processes. Wise IT leaders are welcoming these citizen developers to create value by putting more technical capabilities into the hands of business users. The benefits of the citizen developer movement are compelling, ranging from cost savings to process efficiencies, but they come with risks, too.

How can leaders minimize risks as they maximize the benefits citizen developers bring? I propose a strategic approach: First, identify existing employees who demonstrate the skills and interests of a citizen developer and examine how they might fill gaps within your organization. Then, design a citizen developer program to support their success.

Citizen developers bring benefits and risks to digital transformation

Citizen developers can transfer some of the corporate IT workloads to business functions. This relieves pressure on IT while positioning application development within the teams who benefit from it. Citizen developers understand their teams’ requirements best, and their efforts eliminate the business-user-to-developer translation that characterizes conventional corporate IT.

At the same time, citizen developers increase an enterprise’s overall development capacity. Business teams who used to compete for IT time can now get some development done on their own. This empowers each business unit to achieve its own development priorities faster.

As citizen developers arise from the ranks, however, their newfound capabilities—if left ungoverned—could compromise the integrity of key systems and data. IT leaders can manage this risk by designing citizen development initiatives to identify and develop citizen developers while instilling controls within a team structure that meet enterprise needs and align with the enterprise risk posture.

What is the citizen developer persona?

The best citizen developer programs target individuals who have already shown interest, providing space for them to explore and innovate and enabling them to generate value. Every business has them: people with a gift for making the most of the technology at hand. They enjoy using the low-code/no-code features built into modern enterprise software to solve business problems for themselves and their business unit. They will not be stopped, and leaders shouldn’t want to stop them. It’s far better to recruit them into a citizen development initiative that will support their success.

But not everyone can, or should, be a citizen developer. Leaders will want to recruit individuals who already fit the citizen developer persona. These are the team members who:

  • Need variety and can’t work on just one thing.
  • Dislike inefficiencies and seek better ways of working.
  • Are recognized application “super users” within their teams; skilled with self-service tools.
  • Demonstrate self-driven technical aptitude.

What to consider when designing a citizen developer program?

Successful leaders build programs to maximize the value of citizen developers while managing risk. These programs educate and support employees who fit the citizen developer persona. Thinking strategically about how to support enterprise needs, effective program designers will want to consider:

  • People: Recruit people who fit the citizen developer persona. Look for power business users of apps with the most self-service features who demonstrate the ability to take on increasingly complex challenges.
  • Priorities and structure: Start with the departments that need the most IT help. Look for quick wins to build the program’s reputation. Develop the structure to suit the enterprise. Smaller organizations might favor federations of citizen developers guided by a central IT team. Larger organizations might establish several centers of excellence. The right structure will accelerate program maturity.
  • Time: Provide scheduled periods devoted to experimentation and innovation in a supportive environment—enabled by technical experts or broader community sharing of lessons learned, tips and tricks.
  • Technologies: Consider platforms in use. Look for self-service configuration or fully-fledged development features within the IT portfolio. Applications such as Salesforce, ServiceNow, SharePoint, Power BI, Tableau, Microsoft Power Automate, UiPath and Alteryx, among others, support business teams’ independent data analytic automation, process automation, workflow automation and report development. (Protiviti has formal ecosystem partnership agreements with Salesforce, ServiceNow, Microsoft [SharePoint, Power BI, Microsoft Power Automate] and UiPath.)
  • Training and incentives: Use platform vendors’ programs to train technical skills, but supplement these with program-specific principles, leading practices and controls. Plan ways to measure and communicate wins. Consider developing badges or award programs for citizen developers who create solutions that can be adopted and used by the organization.

Controls empower citizen developers

Controls enable citizen developers to innovate and succeed. Technology owners from IT and process owners from the business can articulate controls collaboratively. Because they often work on hosted applications, citizen developers often build in the production environment. IT leaders must teach them appropriate ways to “test” or validate changes before deploying them and must monitor citizen developers—especially when they’re new.

Organizations that think critically can derive the fullest value from the citizen developer movement for a win-win. Recruiting employees who fit the persona and setting them up for success with well-designed controls maximizes benefits while limiting risk. By taking a strategic approach, leaders can build and sustain a program to support citizen developers’ success and, in turn, accelerate high-value work across the enterprise.

This blog was originally a Forbes Technology Council post.

Kim Bozzella

Managing Director
Global Lead - Technology Consulting

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