Rebooting the Citizen Developer with RPA


The concept of the ‘Citizen Developer’ is no longer revolutionary. Nor has it necessarily lived up to the hype that has seen it embedded in the lexicon of multiple technology vendors and how they structure their solutions. With such golden potential, the question is why hasn’t it caught on? Were the vendors and experts over-promising? Are the ‘citizens’ not up to scratch or actually not that interested in being a ‘developer’? Or is there just a misalignment of understanding for this elusive role? 

Perhaps it was just a case of a workforce underdone in technical skills? It was suggested to me by one of our ‘next gen’ team members that digitally native workers will naturally learn how to develop things to deliver the outcomes they need, as long as the software is intuitive and ‘modern’. Really? That’ll be a tough hurdle for any software with a UI over 4 years old. Meanwhile you’ve got a pretty big workforce of ‘current’ and ‘last’ gen that will still be around for a while yet. On digging deeper into this claim, a key insight emerged – a good software experience comes not necessarily from an intuitive UI, but from being able to self-solve problems and access to quality ‘help’.

So if ‘help’ is the key to getting Citizen Development into practice, let’s explore what this help might look like and who or what this Citizen Developer is.

Remember Shadow IT?

We’re pretty familiar with the idea of Shadow IT. This phenomenon came about for many reasons, but a key driver was that business users (the subject matter experts) were looking for outcomes that they viewed could not be delivered under the weight of rules, restrictions, and resource constraints of IT. IT were a hindrance rather than a help. Invariably when problems arose they were dumped on IT to fix. The whole situation served as a lesson to both parties on their roles and needs – IT cannot stop citizens from contributing to digital change, but employees ultimately need the guidance of IT to do so. 

If employees are engaging in digital change regardless, the trick is not to stop this phenomenon from happening. The key is to hack this momentum, support this growth, and feed it back into a healthy program of digital change. This is where the Citizen Developer comes in, and why they’re so critical to change. Their contributions and energies lie outside the dedicated IT resource, and (with the right guidance) offer a supplementary source of innovation and change momentum. Essentially, to truly get a company-wide digital initiative off the ground (without straining the limits of your IT team) you need the buy-in and innovation of individual business citizens. 

Who is a Citizen Developer really? 

Once known only as Shadow IT ‘practitioners’, these people are perhaps the ideal profile when trying to understand what a Citizen Developer really looks like. They are subject matter experts, understand the business process, perhaps are power users of some of the associated tooling, and above all are focused on outcomes. This is where, I think, the ‘Developer’ tag comes unstuck – it’s a bit of a misnomer. The intent and strength of this person is to identify a need and create an outcome in the most expeditious way. This may or may not incorporate true development and perhaps certainly will not focus on ‘best practice’ delivery. For example, technology professionals know to follow certain ‘rules’ with delivery, such as defining the scope for systems and complying with legal and corporate policies. A citizen developer or practitioner is generally unaware of these factors. In reality this makes them more of a participant in the creation process – a Digital Contributor. The extent of this contribution can vary based on skills, disposition, and capacity, and therefore requires ‘help’ to elastically support all the elements we know are important in a development lifecycle.

Helping Digital Contributors Succeed

So what does this help look like for this newly coined Digital Contributor? The first key factor is to start with the right digital toolset. Historical attempts at Citizen Development have had mixed success in areas such as integration and application development. But the world has been changing rapidly, and now may be the time for the Digital Contributors to make their mark. Rising technological literacy accelerated by the pandemic has coupled with the emergence of tangible, human-emulating technologies like Robotic Process Automation – will these factors lead to a better chance of success for Digital Contributors? For one, a bot is the closest thing to a human we can get in the technology space; RPA emulates human actions, and can often be seen completing its work on a normal computer screen. This makes it easier to conceptualise than integration, for example, and it also means it’s easier for citizens to see and experience success with the tool. 

Perhaps noting these factors, RPA vendors have also been at the forefront of the Citizen Developer movement, developing low-code or no-code options such as UiPath’s Studio X. So there are many reasons why RPA may find a win where other Citizen Developer attempts failed. There is a key ingredient though that is still required to get this right.

A CoE for Collective Competence

Even with the potential for RPA in citizen development, Digital Contributors will need considerable guidance to ensure best-practice, ROI, and to stop a return to shadow IT practices. This is where a Centre of Excellence (CoE) becomes the second critical way to ‘help’ Citizen Developers/Digital Contributors succeed. 

As I discussed above, the role of the Digital Contributor may not necessarily include true development, and they lack the governance and training to think in a ‘developer’ way. IT are best placed to lead a CoE, due to their strong pedigree in governance and process and understanding of system performance and risk. This time around, however, to minimise unhealthy shadow IT practices, the CoE must have a strong focus on collective competence, encouraging both IT and the ‘contributors’ to value and understand the strengths of the other. It may also recognise development as a progressive process whereby stages of development can be completed by contributors within their level of competence, before handover to higher order skills for completion.

To get the ‘help’ right, the CoE needs to mitigate the behaviour of Citizens who may not engage optimally if: 

-They don’t feel supported

-They don’t feel as though they can spend the time

-A roadblock is too difficult to navigate around

-They’re not experiencing personal benefit

These are all problems where IT and the CoE can and must smooth the journey. Training, increased availability, and good choices of technology (easy interfaces, serving the actual needs of citizens not the needs of IT) all make up a better quality ‘help’. And it goes both ways – IT and the CoE must also recognise and value the work of Digital Contributors as enhancing and expanding IT’s capabilities, rather than as another drain on IT support resources. 

If a CoE can convert a digitally willing workforce to one that is also ready and enabled, it will go a long way in helping realise the promise of citizen development.


Need help establishing a strong CoE? Get in touch here. 

Author Details

Simon McCabe
Simon has over 20 years of business development and managerial experience across a range of sectors including food, environment and technology. Simon’s core expertise is in educating and communicating to the corporate sector on the risks and opportunities from new market dynamics. In his role as CCO, Simon is responsible for Sales & Marketing, Product Strategy, Human Resources and Technical Support Services. In addition, Simon drives the strategic direction and growth of IP’s environmental data and carbon management solution, Eden Suite. He is passionate about the business benefits that can be realised from improving environmental performance through technology.

You might be interested in these related insights