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Citizen Development: 5 keys to success

EducationSummary: As defined by Gartner, “A citizen developer is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.” A growing trend, citizen development has become a key tool in the fight against Shadow IT. With citizen development tools, businesses can now give users the ability to create solutions on their own, without the need to bypass the IT department. In this article, we explore a few steps your business must take if you hope to capitalize on this trend.

photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc
photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc

In past articles, we explored the concepts of “Citizen Developers” and “Low-code development.” Both of these concepts refer to the same growing trend: The rise of self-service development.

What is self-service development, and why is it growing so quickly?

Citizen development refers the practice of non-technical employees using self-service development tools to build applications on their own. This often includes applications like reports, dashboards, workflow apps, and more.

One reason this is growing so quickly: Traditional development efforts can’t keep up with the speed of modern business. Businesses can’t afford to wait weeks for new applications, and IT departments are often overworked as it is. In an effort to meet these speed demands, the business provides users with self-service development platforms.

This article in Zdnet sums up the trend nicely: “IT has at least one major opportunity left to lead the digitization of the remainder of our organizations. Trends like low code and the resulting citizen developer that it can enable are going to be one of the key catalysts for next-generation IT that unleash a new wave of local, more decentralized solutions at scale within our organizations.”

The big question: Is it really that easy? Can you give your end users development tools and expect to see instant results?

Not exactly. If you want to see benefits from your citizen development/low-code efforts, you must follow a few important guidelines. Today, let’s explore 5 keys to success:

Identify the “citizen developers”

photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc
photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc

The first key to success in your citizen development process: Figure out which users want to develop their own applications.

This is an area where some businesses stumble. They give a low-code development tool to everyone, and expect every user to use it the same.

The fact is, not every user wants to be a “citizen developer.” Not everyone has the technical skills to put an application together–even without coding. Others just have no interest in building their own solutions.

The ideal citizen developer has three important traits: They understand their data, they want to build solutions, and they have at least a small amount of technical knowledge. Once you identify your citizen developers, you’ll find that they step up and build solutions for other users as well.

Keep it simple

Most low-code development platforms offer capabilities for both end users and experienced developers. But, will the end users ever need access to every feature available? Probably not.

When it comes to citizen development, you need simplicity on two levels: User access and tool selection. Let me briefly explain each one.

First, a citizen developer with broad user privileges may actually create security risks. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common practice. One report found that “58% of IT operations and security managers believe their organizations are unnecessarily granting access to individuals beyond their roles or responsibilities — with the vast majority (91%) predicting the risk of insider threats will continue to grow or stay the same.”

Rather, make sure you grant users with privileges that match their needs. Any citizen development platform should include role-based and user-based security. Understand what each user needs to accomplish, and only give them access to those features.

Educate your users

photo credit: jarmoluk via pixabay cc
photo credit: jarmoluk via pixabay cc

We see businesses make a couple of common mistakes in this area.

First, they don’t explain the need for a citizen development tool. They license a development platform, and roll it out to users without involving them in the process at all.

The problem: If users don’t understand what it is, or why they need it…they won’t use a development tool.

Second, you must provide comprehensive training when you roll out the software. It’s a problem that I see time and time again. A business licenses software, and then skimps on training. Maybe they think the training is too expensive, or that the users will understand the software.

What happens? The users flounder, and the software gets abandoned.

My advice: If you want to succeed with your citizen development efforts, you need customized training. It should be specific to the user’s role, and teach them how to solve problems they currently face. This type of training not only teaches the user how to use the software, it makes them excited to use it.

Create an effective partnership

One of the biggest advantages of citizen development: It helps combat the rise of Shadow IT. If you’re giving users the tools they need, they’re less likely to go behind your back.

However, for citizen development to succeed, you need communication across all levels of business. The business leaders must understand (and support) the initiative. The IT department must create clear usage policies for the users. You must establish open lines of communication between the users and IT department.

In short, this process should bring the business and the IT department closer together. As explained by Gartner in this article, “An effective partnership around a citizen development strategy is the key to avoiding negative impacts of ungoverned “shadow IT” application development. Application managers must ensure business and IT leaders work in tandem to make citizen development strategies a success.”

Monitor usage

Citizen development will take much of the development burden off of IT, but they still play a critical role. The IT department must still monitor the data, user access, and applications created by users.

Now, I’m not saying that every single application created by users needs close scrutiny from IT. For instance, simple reports or data lookup applications are generally fine.

However, if the users are creating applications with write-back capabilities, mission-critical applications, or applications available outside of the office, an IT review is necessary. As explained below, this means your development tool of choice must come with appropriate security measures.

“Closely examine the security options before licensing any citizen development tool,” explains Tyler Wassell, Software Development Manager at mrc. “The right development solution will allow IT to maintain control over applications, data, and user access while giving business units the ability to meet their own application needs.”


While the list could certainly be longer, these are just 5 keys to citizen development success. Would you add anything to this list? If you would like to add anything to this list, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to share in the comments.