Rapid innovation, citizen developers and low-code technology are buzz phrases that make headlines. But how can these trends actually contribute to the digital transformation companies crave? Roland Carandang, managing director in Protiviti’s Technology Consulting practice, looks at the building blocks to bring these ideas to life.
Citizen developers are coming to the fore. These curious individuals, who can be found in every department of a modern business, are an important key to unlock the door of digital transformation. Their problem-solving skills and operational experience are combining with low-code platforms designed to be developed outside of IT departments. And they can move fast.
The technology at their fingertips, which includes Microsoft’s Power Apps, Nintex Workflow Suite, Salesforce, Kissflow and ServiceNow, allows them to build applications in a simple way. Instead of the detailed coding required by experienced developers, new applications are configured using a series of building blocks. They help citizen developers try things and innovate, and they are absolutely changing the game.
Great technology is being made widely available, not just to centres of excellence within businesses, but to those working at the edges. At one end of the spectrum, Excel has been made widely available, and people have done amazing things – but they’ve also had to fix issues with their data. At the other end of the spectrum, robotic process automation has been introduced, but generally away from the masses.
But the sophistication and accessibility of low-code platforms should support both of these models. It is important that people understand how they can push this technology out to the edges of their business and make sure they are doing it well. Because anything these companies are going to be working on will be done within a rapidly changing ecosystem of technology, since there are new platforms coming along all the time.
The democracy of technology
The trend of making technology available to all puts more power in the hands of those who touch it. And there are clear benefits to this process. If more people can be involved with development work, collaboration can increase, making it easier to bring ideas to life. Because citizen developers are, by their very nature, working in operations teams, marketing teams and even in audit teams, they know their business and what it needs.
But while rich opportunities exist, these are still emerging trends for businesses. As industry buzzwords have been gaining traction in the media, the desire to fully embrace this way of working has been a slower burn for corporate UK. Companies see the potential of low-code platforms, but they are often confused about how to make meaningful investments in them. And they question what returns they will see from allowing a few people to “have a go” at building applications.
People need to know more about the art of the possible using this technology. They hear about citizen development, but it’s hard to be excited about it — or even fearful of it — without knowing what this technology can do. Software vendors and partners have work to do in order to show people what is possible.
Some companies, for example, are beginning to lament their decisions to automate control processes because they haven’t been able to provide enough transparency to their auditors. They would rather have a few people doing the same job, but this doesn’t take advantage of the possibilities afforded by technology. As part of the “edges of excellence” concept, we need to make sure team members are working in a defensible way — across the business.
Towards a low-code future
As companies continue their quest towards digital transformation, their ability to keep software development within their IT departments will become strained. The demand for technology skills will continue to grow, and so will the number of low-code providers. This will create an environment in which rapid, democratised development will flourish, because it will have to — and that’s a good thing.
Low-code development has the potential to solve multiple challenges. Yes, it can create products that are better suited to the needs of a business; it can bring people together and make results happen faster. But it can also address any fear that companies may have about losing control. It can link applications together and help create a shared understanding of what’s happening. Low-code technology has the potential to actually make organisations more accountable, both to themselves and to others.
For example, one of the challenges companies face is that they don’t always know how secure they are in the eyes of the regulator. They will commonly report on what they are doing and the number of breaches, but nothing more. Low-code technology can help organisations work towards a single number, like a shares index, that will provide an idea of how risky they are, how they are trending, and how that correlates with underlying risks to their business. It will give leaders an opportunity to intervene, because they will have a better understanding of what is happening. It will also give regulators and auditors more comfort.
Working in this way has the potential to create an empowered and engaged business. If everyone is developing on similar platforms, then it will — a bit like design thinking — flatten the organisation and help create that democracy that everyone is talking about. Of course, better decisions can be made because of the linkages created by data, but companies can also start to do more things as a result of what they learn. This means they will be ready to rapidly change and adapt, which everyone has had to learn over the past 12 months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edges of excellence – five steps to low-code success
There are a series of factors that are central to the creation of “edges of excellence” in a business. Below we look at five themes that companies, technology partners and software vendors might find helpful as they consider how to make the most of low-code technology and citizen developers.
- Enabling innovation - Companies talk a good game on innovation but moving from Post-it notes on the wall to products is an important step. Many people think about innovation in terms of ideas, but technology is often what’s used to execute those plans. Low-code platforms have made the ability to execute available to everyone. That’s the clear linkage. It may be that what’s produced won’t be the final product, but it is often something that can help prove a concept.
- Developing in a changing world – Low-code development cannot be delivered in the same way that software has in the past. The traditional “requirements and analysis” phase is not a modern way of doing business in today’s rapidly developing landscape. This phase has now been replaced with rapid prototyping — and there are tools that can help with that. Companies will also have to position what they are doing as part of a larger “roadmap,” because new ways of working are being introduced regularly. A dynamic roadmap, which doesn’t force the use of unnecessary tools, is increasingly important.
- Meaningful partnerships - We have seen a shift, especially in the security industry, away from very larger providers of technology to very niche product developers. Overall, these niche developers have increased the amount of technology available, but they have made it much noisier for customers. This has amplified the need for meaningful partnerships between businesses, consultancies and software providers, so the right challenges can be solved at the right time. By working closely together, these partners can help companies build what they need now, without ignoring the future.
- Extracting value, protecting value – Control functions in a business use technology to moderate processes in order to protect value. But a modern angle would be to imagine other ways these tools can be used to extract value. By experimenting with low-code software, for example, companies will be able to review and audit other people’s work and collaborate on other projects. Then everyone will see what is possible and how technology can be fostered and managed at the same time. Organisations could even develop an internal startup to do this.
- Agile and lean startup mindset – Agile delivery of projects is a well understood method of managing progress, but it’s also an important aspect of working with low-code technology. When teams begin to create products quickly and continually, the speed of innovation craved by so many large companies can be achieved. Agile delivery is also a key component of the “lean startup” model, which is a way of quickly understanding if a product or business model is viable. Building anything new has a high degree of uncertainty attached to it, so unpacking and testing it quickly is critical to optimising time invested in these projects.
The use of low-code technology will continue to grow, enabling rapid development, innovation and digital transformation that companies need to succeed and thrive. As organisations embrace this tool and the concept of citizen developers and the problem-solving skills and operational experience they bring they will increase the potential for improved agility, higher productivity and faster transformation.