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What is a citizen developer and where do they come from?

“Are citizen developers a myth or reality, and if they really exist, where do they come from and what do they do?”

Digital process automation analysts hear these questions frequently, and they are good ones. They’re also heavy-loaded questions because:

  • Citizen developers exist, but the organizations that employ them are all over the map.
  • Most citizen developers have diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and experience levels.
  • The role business people play in designing and deploying digital processes varies greatly depending upon the organization’s culture and the working relationship between business and IT.

Where does a citizen developer come from?

The rise of citizen developers is intrinsically linked to the widespread emergence of low-code and no-code digital process automation products. Historically, process automation systems have always focused on point-and-click, drag-and-drop, highly visual design tools for co-located business/IT teams working on process improvement projects.

But about three years ago, process automation software reached a tipping point where most business processes could be designed using powerful, business-friendly low-code design and automation tools. The widespread usability, applicability, and scalability of low-code products gave rise to a powerful and enticing idea: empowering business people to design, deploy, and manage their own automated processes.

As a result, the low-code, no-code trend is real, and the emergence of citizen developers is not just hype. By using pre-built templates, out-of-the-box forms, process templates, a range of user interfaces, pre-built process models, out-of-the-box connectors, and process-driven packaged business applications, non-programmers on business teams – “citizen developers” – can create their own apps when designing new processes, radically reducing the need for application developers from IT.

But – most organizations don’t want their businesspeople with full-time responsibilities (e.g., accountants, budget analysts, marketers, sales reps, engineers, etc.) dedicating their time to automating processes, even if no programming is required. Plus, early adopters have learned that designing a business process requires more than configuration skills – someone on the team also must have analytical, data, and technical experience.

Most firms have not embraced citizen developers for 100% of the process design effort. Instead, they work alongside business analysts, content and collaboration experts, process improvement specialists, and/or developers – any of whom may manage the project.

Experienced process practitioners point out that developers are still needed for non-coding tasks, such as data modeling, security, Agile methodology, compliance, testing, governance, and best practices. Thus, it’s best to create citizen developers as a vital part of a collaborative business/IT process automation teams rather than a wholesale (and unrealistic) replacement for application developers.

What do citizen developers actually do?

Following are some of the ways in which organizations are using citizen developers. These examples illustrate the broad roles that citizen developers play in process design, automation, and management, depending on the corporate culture, the working relationship between IT and the business, the criticality of the business process (e.g., administrative versus customer-facing), and other factors:

Most citizen developers work alongside business analysts, process improvement analysts, and developers to design new business processes, but not as a true replacement for developers. Instead, they design the “as-is” and “to-be” process using low-code and no-code tools. Many of them are business analysts or power users with skills in building Excel macros, SharePoint applications, RPA scripts, or other tools such as Visio diagramming. With the latest low-code tools and a collaborative business/IT project team, these citizen developers can quickly and easily design and build new processes.

Few organizations have true citizen developers (i.e., business people) that work on their own or in business-only teams to deploy process-based business solutions. Employees have full-time jobs, lack process analysis skills, don’t know process improvement methodologies and Agile, and usually, fall back on waterfall approaches. The question isn’t whether no-code or low-code works, it’s how managers and executives want employees to use their time.

Citizen developers sometimes build internal, administrative processes. When citizens are encouraged and empowered to tackle business processes, they often develop lightweight processes such as organizing employee events, automating the employee suggestion process, automating travel requests, onboarding new employees, and other administrative tasks.

In rare instances, organizations have created true citizen developers and empowered them across the organization.  For example, one organization’s enterprise architecture group began a program to train business people in process design skills. After starting small, they eventually trained 30+ citizen developers each quarter who now dedicate 15-20% of their time to creating and automating small improvements in business operations. This is an effective model for creating a citizen developer program through skills training rather than waiting for organic citizen developer opportunities to blossom.

Citizen developers provide valuable process insights in many organizations, powered by low-code/no-code software designed for business users. Organizations seeking to tap into the energy that citizen developers bring to project teams should approach it intentionally and plan fully by asking questions such as:

  • What type of skills do citizen developers need?
  • What percentage of time can citizen developers devote to designing and building processes?
  • How will the project teams handle application integration, testing, data modeling, and so forth? Aren’t these tasks best suited for IT staff?
  • How can citizen developers and technical staff work together?
  • What type of processes should citizen developers tackle (e.g., administrative, business operations, customer-facing)?

With a well-considered approach, organizations can take the idea of citizen developers from a concept to a reality that delivers insight and business value to process automation and improvement initiatives.



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