Mar 19, 2021

Why citizen developers will be vital for future success

Automation
Software development
RPA
IT
Gavin Mee
7 min
Encouraging citizen developers will help businesses deal with the speed at which the world is changing as the pandemic makes its full impact known
Encouraging citizen developers will help businesses deal with the speed at which the world is changing as the pandemic makes its full impact known...

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we must embrace change if we are to succeed as a society and an economy. In many ways, lots of us have had no choice. In the first lockdown, for example, about half of the UK workforce worked remotely – and many are not likely to go back to the office for some time. 

Remote working, combined with the huge pressures on all parts of the economy to work in a COVID-safe way, has caused an incredible digital acceleration of organisational change in just about every sector. 

The speed and scale of technological development is underlined by KPMG, which says companies around the globe invested over £11bn extra a week on technology to enable safe and secure home working during COVID-19. This colossal increase is one of the biggest surges in technology investment in history. 

Even when lockdown pressures and the impact of the pandemic ease, we will go back to a different world. It will be faster, with greater agility and there will be a higher expectation for businesses to react quickly with new technologies. 

In response to a faster, more agile, and digitally oriented world, we need to democratise access to technology, enabling a broader set of experts to help co-create technology assets. The pool of professionals who have valuable skills they have acquired and perfected over many years can be supported to continue to do that via academies of technology created by companies and by NGOs. However, to make a real change, we need to identify and promote new technology and identify fresh approaches so that we can all contribute to the development economy.

The question is: how can organisations – leaders and employees – keep up with the pace of change the world now faces? How can they manage the break-neck speed with which we need to anticipate, implement, and adopt new software – especially at a time when tech skills are in such high demand? 

One answer lies in promoting the democratisation of software creation. Using no-code and low-code platforms, people with no technical background can become co-creators of software solutions or in other words, citizen developers. 

Co-creation of software solutions by users is booming

Encouraging citizen developers within the business is one way to keep up with the new pace. Empowering employees to dictate how they work most efficiently improves their productivity, engagement and confidence and spurs them to promote the program to others. 

Put simply, if an employee can navigate their way round most consumer-based, drag and drop software, they can become a citizen developer. Instead of needing complex coding skills, citizen developers can use simpler tools – sometimes called visual integrated development environments or no-code platforms. 

It’s a simple way for business users to utilise their in-depth knowledge of processes to develop software that empowers them and the organisations they work for and to unlock bottom-up innovation. 

This is already happening. According to a 2017 report, nearly 60% of all custom apps are developed outside of the IT department, and of those, 30% are built by employees with either limited or no technical development skills. This trend is only set to continue. Gartner predicts that by the year 2024 about 66% of big companies will be using a minimum of four low-code platforms.

Nowhere is the concept of ‘becoming a citizen developer’ more beneficial and straightforward to implement, than when it comes to using automation technologies such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA). 

To explain this acronym a little further, you can think of RPA as software robots, or robot assistants, that take on the endless, repetitive tasks we as humans do not enjoy doing. These software robots complete tasks faster and with more accuracy than people, freeing us all to focus on more creative, higher-value work. This, in turn, gives capacity back to the business. 

Thanks to the availability of low-code automation platforms, citizen developers can increase their productivity, and cut down development time simply by creating automations that make a difference to their workday. 

Becoming a citizen developer

It’s important to remember that becoming a citizen developer is less about technical skills and more about mindset. If you know your way around a spreadsheet and can create tables, sort, and filter data, or rearrange information from a database, you’re probably halfway there. 

Perhaps the best way to kick-start such an initiative is for organisations to provide employees with training opportunities, events and the best resources. Employees should feel encouraged to explore drag-and-drop style software tools and low-code platforms. These systems could be specific to the type of software being developed – such as tools to build RPA automations – or they could be more generic. Organisations can easily run their first pilots and then encourage employees to create their own solutions – with central oversight and control. 

Fostering a citizen developer community

For employers, an important step in creating a community of citizen developers is to recognise them for their worth. They will not become a substitute for the company’s IT team but they will ease their and their colleagues’ burdens and empower people who are dealing with new technology at a faster rate than at any time in history. 

Employers also need to communicate the governance around the community. For example, how can those interested get the right software? How will they run and publish automations? What are the limitations for citizen developers? Some typical steps include support with workstation setup, ‘idea approval’ sessions, and citizen developer-specific quality checks. 

This leads to training. While the point of these tools is simplicity and ease of use, people will still require support to get to grips with how they work. While citizen developers can create RPA automations they still need to collaborate with those responsible for its roll out so this can be combined with setting ground rules about working closely with the IT team, followed by ongoing mentorship and governance. 

Another option is to train and enable power users first – those citizen developers that build solutions for their teams or departments. This way, they can become the first line of support for their colleagues who want to explore with co-creating software solutions. 

This being said, there really isn’t a single recipe for success. As long as enterprises foster a learning culture and provide associated incentives, build self-sufficiency and promote collaboration, they’re primed for success. 

A success story of bottom-up digital transformation with RPA

Wärtsilä, a large Finnish marine engineering company, has successfully implemented RPA with citizen developers. To scale the company's process automation, it needed to engage as many employees as possible. It achieved this by encouraging staff and introducing them to the concept, rather than imposing it on them, helping over 100 people become actively involved in developing automations. 

The program was not without its challenges. However, once key users became involved and began assisting with the process automation development, they were empowered to bring their ideas to the table. In addition, the company implemented training, including online and face-to-face sessions, to help key users further understand the benefits of RPA.

As Nishant Redekar, Wärtsilä’s Solution Architect and Process Automation Leader, explains, “We needed our people along with us. That was our focus, to put our key users in the driver’s seat so they can decide for themselves. It doesn’t come easy – it takes some effort, but it’s not impossible.”

As a result, RPA has proved incredibly successful for Wärtsilä. Today, the company relies on more than 400 automated processes created by its citizen developers. 

In summary, it’s clear from Wärtsilä’s experience that this approach works and will be essential for businesses grappling with the pace of change and adoption of new technologies. We all need to find ways to ensure we are prepared and can cope with the difficulties the future might hold. 

Rather than waiting for the IT team to help us, it’s time we all considered how we can begin getting to grips with the tools that will become universal in the workplace. Fostering a community of citizen developers – or even becoming one – has never been more attractive, or available.

By Gavin Mee, Managing Director for UK and Ireland at automation firm UiPath

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