CIO playbook: Citizen development is your 'most important' tool

Chief Information Officers must innovate, deliver faster than ever before, and reduce costs. Low-code environments can help IT balance these conflicting and challenging mandates.

CIO playbook Citizen development is your 'most important' tool

A citizen developer in action. Photo by Michael Krigsman.

The topic of low-code platforms and citizen development has come up a lot lately during my discussions with Chief Information Officers. Given the mandate to innovate while spending less money, interest in this topic is not surprising.

The heart of citizen development is giving knowledgeable end-users the tools to create applications on their own, without IT involvement or intervention.

Citizen development offers several benefits:

  • Fit. No one knows what a business user needs better than that person herself. When users create apps, by definition, those apps fit the users' business purposes.
  • Speed. Citizen developers don't wait for IT to approve apps, specs, screens, data access, or anything else. They do the work and have the result right away.
  • Cost. IT saves money on developers when users in other departments build apps; it's a simple cost equation.

During episode 283 of the CXOTalk series of conversations with the world's top innovators, I asked three-time CIO and author of the book Driving Digital, Isaac Sacolick, for his thoughts on citizen development:

I think it's probably the most important technology tool that CIOs need to look at. We do not have enough staff and our staff who are strong at AppDev really need to focus on the customer-facing pieces that are going to move the needle.

Building tools for dealing with knowledge bases, doing workflows, integrating enterprise data sources into a single utility that can be used for a one-time purpose -- these are great use cases for low-code environments to get developers to be more productive and even citizen development programs.

Sacolick also addressed potential issues with citizen development, in areas such as governance, security, and data integration:

CIOs should stop using the word governance. They should implement governance in a way that people will understand it. Governance includes things like version control, locking down information but giving access to the people who need it. It means improving data quality and solving those problems when you give new technology to a business group.

We need to provide tools [that allow citizen developers] to do things in a safe way, in a controlled way, and a practiced way. That's what governance is about. We must help end-users understand the practices they must implement.

Citizen development is a crucial topic for CIOs today. Nick Johnson of Salesforce interviewed me recently about citizen development, and the conversation sheds light on important issues.

Here is a somewhat edited and reworked version of that conversation:

SALESFORCE: In 2017, all U.S. computer science graduates would have filled less than 9% of all open developer positions. There are plenty of people out there who are suggesting there is a large and growing "skills gap" in the IT world. Do you agree with them and how did we get to this point?

MICHAEL KRIGSMAN: I agree that there's an IT skills gap, but to answer your question, let's look at the history of IT.

IT as a corporate function began with technology in the 1950's. Computers were large, expensive, and complicated machines, so it made sense to create layers of protection between business users and those with the technical skills to operate that equipment. We all know the stereotype of people in white coats with punch cards.

From the dawn of corporate computing until recently, the focus of IT has been on protecting those complicated machines and providing an interface to make them available to business users.

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UNIVAC computer, used for the 1960 U.S. census

We live in a different world now -- a world of digital transformation -- and two key shifts have had a major impact on the role, responsibilities, and purpose of the IT department.

First, equipment has become much less expensive and therefore pervasive. Second, we're all computer experts now, and computing is an integral part of our daily lives.

Although these shifts have had profound implications for modern IT departments, some senior IT leaders still have the old mentality and act like the primary role of IT is protecting corporate assets and infrastructure. Although these attitudes are changing, they are still out there.

And yet, business partners and users today expect IT to support agility and speed rather than merely protect assets. Yes, protection and governance are essential, but users want IT to deliver clear business benefit - they want IT to supply technology that solves their problems fast and without hassle.

We need to distinguish between speed, efficiency, and innovation when it comes to IT.

The business wants IT to be fast (meaning agility) and efficient (meaning, get more stuff done with fewer resources), but also to support innovation (which means improvement, or doing things better).

The modern challenge for IT is changing the focus from efficiency to innovation. This the challenge number one for the CIO today.

It's hard, because the business says, "We want you to do a lot more stuff, and we want you to innovate, but we also want to cut your budget."

SALESFORCE: How does this history of IT relate to the skills gap today?

MICHAEL KRIGSMAN: We need to look at three main areas:

First, we know that the business expects IT to be a strategic partner. But, does the IT department have the skills needed to fulfill this demand? Can we realistically expect IT to engage with the business beyond technology solutions and infrastructure, to have expertise about marketing campaigns, financial programs, and the like? There' a business skills gap. Actually, that's the most important gap.

Second, we have the mindset issue. The demand that people in IT shift their thinking from efficiency as the prime directive to innovation as the essential IT mandate.

Third, the mandate of IT has changed, and people in business have strong technical skills, so they expect IT to supply resources of a certain caliber. Does IT have those resources on-board to allocate quickly to meet business demand?

Coming back to citizen developers, the tools now exist for non-technologists to take a certain level of development into their own hands. In this world, companies must decide where development and computing should take place.

With the proliferation of easy-to-configure SaaS applications, there's a fine line between departments buying their own computing applications and doing their own development.

The ease of buying web-based applications has accelerated the rise of "shadow IT." The concept of shadow IT means people in the business buying (and configuring or developing) applications without involving or asking IT.

The skills gap is about meeting business needs in a world where IT does not have unlimited resources, but the business has almost insatiable demand for IT support.

That's your gap.

SALESFORCE: How can citizen development help bridge that skills gap?

MICHAEL KRIGSMAN: CIOs should provide the services, the infrastructure, get the right governance in place -- and then let your employees have at it. It's beneficial for IT and helpful for employees who want to become citizen developers.

Why not offload a lot of the work of traditional IT on to the people who need it and know what they want? If you give them the right tools and they have the right skills, and they can do it themselves. They don't have to talk to IT; they just go do it.

It's less work for IT and lets the CIO do more with less, as I described earlier. It's faster for the business, which increases speed and makes them happy.

Citizen development lets the CIO focus on infrastructure, services, enterprise architecture, security, and other areas that must remain the exclusive province of corporate IT.

SALESFORCE: How should companies define the governance around this new cadre of citizen developers?

MICHAEL KRIGSMAN: Make sure that your systems don't allow users to bypass core governance standards.

For example, don't allow them to expose data through the firewall unless it's governed in the usual ways that the corporation allows. Give citizen developers access to certain types of data only, whatever is within their permission role or profile. Things like that. Only expose the services that are, again, appropriate to the organizational role and profile of the citizen developer.

Build governance into the system and then let users do whatever they want. That's the mark of an efficient and innovative IT organization!