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  • Noel Carroll

Digital Transformation and the Role of Citizen Development

Citizen development accelerates and expands digital transformation by enabling non-technical business users to deliver automated solutions for their organisation. Understanding the context, however, is an important first step.

Digital Transformation

There is still a lot of confusion in organisations about digital transformation, terms such as digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation are used interchangeably.

This creates an uncomfortable environment as unspoken differences compound a situation where leaders undertaking digital transformation, absent an agreed definition, struggle to make it work.

Definition is therefore important:

— Digitisation is where the organisation utilises digital tools and technologies to continue doing what it has always has done.

In essence, it’s a shift from analogue to digital. The past year is a prime example of digitisation as organisations used digital tools and technologies to facilitate remote customer engagement and working.

— Digitalisation on the other hand is about using digital tools to create new value propositions, business models and revenue streams.

— Whereas Digital Transformation is strategically repositioning the organisation to compete and thrive in a digitalised world. In essence, it is redefining the future of the organisation.

Citizen Development

To compete in a hyper-connected digitalised world, businesses increasingly need to innovate faster. Limited resources, technical debt, risk and change management are often significant hurdles. So too, are institutionalised silos typically seen within most organisations.

Another significant issue is the significant global shortage of skilled software. According to research from Forrester, in the U.S.A. alone, there will be a deficit of 500,000 software developers by 2024. As digital is a key enabler of digital transformation, this will create significant challenges.

Against this backdrop, it makes absolute sense to find ways to empower non-IT employees to solve day-to-day challenges. According to a recent Gartner survey on Citizen Development, 41% of respondents have active citizen development initiatives and 20% of those who don’t are either evaluating or planning to start citizen development initiatives.

Citizen development provides all the intended features and functions in a manner where knowledge of programming or application design is not necessary. In essence, it puts the technology to automate processes and design applications, directly into the hands of those who know the processes best: the business users.

Not only does this reduce the demands on IT departments, but Citizen Development can help the organisation in terms of mindset, culture, alignment and collaboration, all critical components of digital transformation.

Citizen Development brings also many other benefits to an organisation as it:

— accelerates development speed

— improves employee skills and indeed, supports the much needed reskilling challenge

— improves efficiency and lower cost innovation

— Facilitates niche and one-off projects

Citizen Development Challenges

1. IT Overload: Organisations are facing a shortage of skilled developers to address the growing number of demands from external and internal customers, while also responding to market developments and regulatory expectations.

While citizen development can help, organisations must be wary of complexity, extensive customisation and integration issues. The size of the organisation will have a direct bearing on these considerations. Citizen Development is not intended as a means to circumvent skilled staff or enterprise infrastructure.

2. The Human Factor: While technology provides the means to digital transformation, success is ultimately in the hands of the people who have to work with it. All too often, organisations select tools that are too complicated to intuitively implement, or executives change processes without employee input or taking into account what does and doesn’t work on a day-to-day basis.

Equally, research from McKinsey concludes that a key factor for success in digital transformation is empowering people to work in new ways.

Citizen development plays directly into this strategy, as it can empower non-tech employees with deep understanding of how customers explore new solutions as part of digital transformation.

3. Culture & Collaboration: Creating great customer experiences and good outcomes is everyone job and it requires a culture where employees can take the initiative to optimize processes. Citizen development brings ownership of digital transformation to where it matters i.e. the moment of truth in the customer relationship.

Adopting Citizen Development necessitates open communication channels combined with psychological safety, where employees feel encouraged and are supported by policies and frameworks, the necessary tools, reference materials and on-the-job training. It also requires eliminating silo thinking; collaboration must be the guiding mantra.

A partnership between IT, the business and Citizen Developers raises all boats as organisations become more informed and more responsive to customer needs.

4. Shadow IT: Organisations must have a strong governance and collaboration model at the core of their Citizen Development program. Organisations should provide Citizen Developers with app creation resources, informed and guided by IT best practices.

The goal should be to develop a culture of continuous customer-driven improvement.

Citizen Development Role in Digital Transformation

Citizen Development can absolutely be used in digitisation as a key plank to improving the current business. In smaller organisations, it can also support digitalisation.

For larger organisations, where scale takes on a totally different meaning, Citizen Development most likely will support the testing of Minimum Viable Products, before handing over to IT and enterprise development, where new ideas can be scaled.

In terms of digital transformation, the strategic repositioning of the organisation is a leadership issue that impacts the whole organisation.

It’s not about IT or software per se. It’s about the future vision for the organisation and it requires a considered appreciation for how the organisation needs to transform. In essence, it’s more about Transformation than Digital.

Key Recommendations for Citizen Development

1. Automate at the departmental and individual level

Employees are at the frontline of embracing or rejecting change. Equally, no one understands the business processes better than those involved with them on a daily basis. Citizen Developers are ideally suited to automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks to increase productivity and job satisfaction and, in turn, drive and sustain digital transformation efforts. Organisations need to consider how to automate at the departmental and individual level in a safe, secure, scalable manner.

2. Understand that small changes can lead to large-scale, impactful digital transformations

This understanding is critical to ensure that stakeholders are provided with actionable insights based on accurate data across different departments and geographies to drive better decision making.

3. Assess all aspects of Citizen Development

As organisations adopt Citizen Development practices, it’s important to assess their reusability, scalability, the total cost of ownership, potential risks, and impact on enterprise-level norms such as security.

4. Examine the ROI

Organisations are increasingly interested in driving a higher ROI. Traditional programming methods and application development platforms are often ill-suited to address issues that would be better fixed at the point of friction.

As such, organisations need the right balance of resources to drive and sustain maximum agility, speed, and operational efficiencies. No Code can bring significant benefits.

5. Promote the concept of return on experience for digital transformations

The idea is to orchestrate, personalise, and monitor the entire user experience, at scale, across any channel. The goal is to empower those in the business closest to the problem to build the “last mile” of the app to fit their unique requirements.

Under this approach, IT concentrates on application governance, controls, and administration while Citizen Development focuses on understanding nuanced processes and solving specific challenges.

6. Build Citizen Development delivery capability

Citizen developers can have a profound effect on their organisations by taking a leadership role in the development process; creating improved workflows; and solving business, functional, and operational challenges faster because often they are much more attuned to the problems and understand how to fix them.

7. Establish a Citizen Development control and governance framework

It is critically important that organisations assess their current control and governance framework to ensure Citizen Development programs are well structured, well-governed, and deliver value. The success of Citizen Development initiatives depends on having clearly defined governance standards.

Prior to adopting Citizen Development, stakeholders should consider:

— Who are the Citizen Developers, and how will they be trained?

— What toolsets should Citizen Developers use to solve what problems?

— Will these tools allow Citizen Developers to openly collaborate across the entire organisation and solve problems?

— How can we eliminate shadow IT without smothering innovation?

— How can we create and maintain healthy tension between central IT and Citizen Developers?


Digital transformation has become a global priority, as organisations require hyper-agile approaches to keep up with the pace of change. Citizen development is an opportunity to drive change without relying on scarce and expensive core technology, IT and engineering talent.

Written Dr Noel Carroll & Tony Moroney

About the Authors:

Dr Noel Carroll is the Founder of the Citizen Development Lab, National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG). Noel is the Associate Head of Learning, Teaching and Assessment (LTA) within the School of Business & Economics at NUIG.

He is also the Programme Director for the MSc Information Systems Management (ISM) and a Lecturer in Business Information Systems. He is also a researcher with Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, and the Whitaker Institute at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

His research interests include seeking ways to support organisations in developing transformation strategies in software development, digital innovation, and health informatics for multinationals, SMEs, and start-ups.

Tony Moroney is a Co-Founder of The Digital Transformation Lab, Cork University Business School, a Think-Tank for digital transformation comprising of experts from industry, academia, and consulting.

Tony is also the Founder and Managing Partner of Beta Digital, a specialist strategy and digital transformation advisory firm. In addition, he is the Programme Director for the Professional Diploma in Digital Leadership at the Irish Management Institute.

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