Why IT as you know it is dead (and long live the citizen developer)

CIOs simply can't afford to ignore the opportunities that citizen development offers.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

Video: The advent of the citizen developer

IT leaders are navigating an unfamiliar world.

To really understand the truth of this, let's rewind to the middle of the 20th century. IT as a discrete corporate function was born in the 1950s, when companies realized they needed to protect their new investment in some very large, very expensive, and very complicated machinery: Computers.

As such, the IT department's entire job was to protect those machines and ensure they were used as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The result was a "systems before people" mentality. That mentality still lingers today among some IT teams -- but it's as unhelpful as it is outdated.

Why IT as you know it is dead

Today's IT department has a very different job. A recent survey revealed that IT leaders' top two challenges are "innovating for the business" and "project speed." Ultimately, the IT department is becoming the "central nervous system" of the organization, tasked with helping a company measure up to customer demands to become more productive, more innovative, and more agile.


Figure 1. Skill gaps are a major IT challenge

That same survey showed that 67 percent of IT teams are making it a high priority to improve collaboration with other lines of business. I take that as proof that the "systems before people" mentality is dying.


Figure 2. New IT hires from universities lack the skills necessary to contribute immediately

IT's rebirth relies on new skills -- but here's the catch

Despite stepping into this role of increased prominence in the business, IT leaders find themselves in a thorny situation. Only 29 percent of IT organizations rate their ability to keep pace with technology trends as excellent. The World Economic Forum has found that over a third of the core skills required of the workforce by 2020 will be different from those today. In IT -- at the forefront of tech's impact on business -- the challenge is particularly pronounced, with a majority of IT leaders (52 percent) saying that skill gaps are a major challenge at their organization.


As Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the city of Palo Alto, said: "Years ago, you could build a workforce of talent over a couple of decades. Now, these technologies emerge within three or four years, and we can't make the shift in educating people quickly enough. And here's the kicker: This isn't getting any easier. This is going to get more complex."

Nearly 75 percent of IT Leaders explore citizen development

So, where is the enterprising IT leader to turn? Enter citizen development.

Citizen development can be explained as the flipside to the spooky-sounding "shadow IT", where business users, hungry to solve problems, quickly built their own solutions in isolation from the core IT department.

Citizen development brings those progress-hungry business users back into the fold, empowering them with the skills and resources (like low-code development tools) to solve their problems right alongside -- and in concert with -- the existing IT department.

New Salesforce research suggests that 74 percent of IT leaders plan to shift at least some of their application development directly to business units. The IDC found that by 2027, the number of active citizen developers will double to 10m, and those citizen developers will write 60 percent of all new applications.

Citizen development gives rise to a generation of quasi-developers

IT leaders are flocking to citizen developers now because it helps solve some of key challenges they face today. By empowering a greater proportion of the workforce to do development, IT leaders can turn a team of 15 into hundreds of quasi-developers.

What's more, those quasi-developers are business experts, not IT experts. That means they can effectively focus on solving the key challenges that will give the highest output or efficiency gains for the team -- because they're often part of the team that will use the tool.

Citizen development multiplies capacity to innovate

As we give development tools to a broader swathe of the workforce, we can start to tap into ideas and enthusiasm from a different group with different perspectives on the challenges IT developers are wrestling with.

Damian O'Farrill, himself a citizen developer at Autodesk, put it well: "As citizen developers, we have a certain naivete that plays to our advantage. We don't know what we don't know -- but we know enough to be dangerous ... Let's use this cross-functional expertise that we have and not just think in terms of system. That naivete of someone that has not come through the traditional developer learning -- it opens up possibilities of much more innovation."

Citizen development helps craftsmen be craftsmen

By empowering business users with some development tools, key development expertise can be freed up to work on more challenging and complex tasks. Implemented well, highly trained development experts will no longer have to spend their time working on routine tasks.

David Riggan, Area Vice President for Solution Delivery at BMC, said: "The analogy is that of the highly skilled craftsman. You don't necessarily want them sitting there carving out block stones for a building. That's not a good use of their time or the value that they can add. So if you can teach someone else how to do those simpler tasks, then the craftsman can work on the architecture of the building ... It's the same thing for me from a development standpoint, right?"


Figure 3. IT Leaders Who Are Extremely or Very Interested in Low-Code Development

How to roll out citizen development across your business

For those of you now wondering how to leverage the power of citizen development in your business, some key advice:

  • Good citizen development is dictated by governance: How do you give people the freedom to innovate while preventing them doing lasting damage if they make a mistake? Governance. It's the foundation stone of any citizen development program. The best approach takes its cue from driving instructors. Driving instructors make very sure students know the fundamentals of driving before letting them loose on the freeway. The same is true for citizen development. Validate progress in stages. Only when developers prove their abilities are they granted more permissions and more freedom.
  • Provide technology-enabled training: One of the biggest obstacles to a rollout of citizen development is providing adequate training for this legion of hungry new developers. Existing IT teams are run off their feet, and simply will not have bandwidth to commit to designing and delivering a comprehensive training program. That's why guided learning paths -- like Salesforce's Trailhead -- are so impactful. People can learn to develop in their own time against a curriculum defined by the IT org. Pair that with some targeted one-on-one time with an experienced developer to validate progress and answer questions, and you have a scalable solution to citizen development's biggest challenge.
  • Identify and actively engage with citizen developers: Creating a culture of innovation and turbo-charging your organizational ability to co-create value outside of IT will require active engagement from IT. Remind your citizen developers that there are no IT projects, there are only business projects. By actively supporting citizen developers, using simple processes that ensure use of quality data and lean processes, IT can help scale and accelerate your company's ability to innovate and meet customer expectations, while reducing the risks associated with shadow IT. Most importantly, develop a formal recognition process to recognize and reward citizen developers that create solutions that improve the stakeholder experience.

IT leaders map out the new frontier

It's not an easy time to be an IT leader. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has drastically elevated customer expectations and shifted the fundamental remit of the IT department. The department faces demands to enable business agility, and ever-higher levels of innovation and productivity -- all while juggling shrinking budgets and legacy mindsets of IT as a control function, not a strategic one.

Yet, by shifting that mindset -- to one where they empower business users to solve their own IT problems -- they free up precious developer resources to tackle major opportunities. They introduce new, innovative voices into the debate on IT issues. And they drastically increase the IT capacity and competence for their entire organization. In this Fourth Industrial Revolution, CIOs simply can't afford to ignore the opportunities that citizen development offers.

For a closer look at data points in this article, download the research brief "The New Frontier of Software Development."

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