Transforming the Workforce with Governed Citizen Development

It’s an unprecedented time to be a CIO or any technology leader. On the one hand, technology organizations are working hard on digital transformation and developing many new customer and employee-facing applications. On the other, IT is now running double duty by supporting more remote working employees and then responding to other COVID-19 business needs.

Transforming with Citizen Development

There’s never been greater demand on IT to rapidly deliver easier to use, integrated, reliable, and secure applications. Once delivered, business users expect that IT teams update applications regularly and support them efficiently.

When SaaS or Homegrown Applications Aren’t Viable Options

Let’s review IT’s options for fulfilling departmental application needs or responding to opportunities that require rapid development.

For example, many organizations require new applications for crisis response, such as managing new types of requests, tracking assets deployed to remote workers, and increasing communications with employees.

Other times, departments need small applications to supplement core solutions. For example, many HR departments develop central portals to link different SaaS tools and publish HR-related information. Beyond these basics, many want to add specialized tools for scheduling employee training, tracking job candidates, or managing the talent recruitment process

Business and IT leaders often seek out SaaS and enterprise solutions to cover the most strategic needs. Individual departments may also pursue SaaS solutions, but there may not be viable options if workflows are proprietary or episodic. There are also additional costs and risks to organizations evaluating, administering, integrating, and supporting a large number of SaaS applications.

The second option is to develop homegrown applications, but that requires devoting precious IT talent to build, support, and enhance them.  Business teams often require a strong rationale to justify developing homegrown applications with the IT department, and that assumes IT has the staffing, skills, and platforms for delivering homegrown solutions. Many business needs aren’t strategically important enough to warrant an IT investment, and IT may not have sufficient time to develop apps when responding to crises or fast-moving opportunities.

That leaves an undesirable third option where business teams are left to fend for themselves. Some may pursue rogue IT solutions, but more often, these departments clobber together workflows with manual workarounds and using a mix of email, spreadsheets, virtual meetings, chat functions, shared file systems, and other tools.

Embracing Citizen Developed Applications to Empower the Workforce

Instead of saying no to these business demands, progressive IT teams are embracing shadow IT, partnering with business leaders on driving workforce enablement, and encouraging citizen development

Citizen development on a low-code platform offers a paradigm shift to how smarter and faster organizations develop and support applications. Instead of IT building and supporting them, IT provides the tools, practices, and knowledge to individuals in each department that are interested in applying technologies to solve business challenges. These citizen developers are already subject matter experts on their department’s business needs, workflows, and internal lingo. With some technical acumen and basic training, they can easily translate these business needs into practical applications. Citizen developers can also integrate low-code applications and automate workflows between SaaS platforms such as Slack, MailChimp, SalesForce, Marketo, Workday, and Zuora.  

In fact, citizen developers are often more successful converting email and spreadsheet workflows into applications because they understand the working paradigm. It’s a faster and more efficient development process because the workflow doesn’t need translation into technical requirements or require dedicated cloud infrastructure. Additionally, the citizen developer often has deeper relationships and more clout in their department and thus are often more successful in gaining end-user adoption of the workflows and tools they develop.

Governing Citizen Developed Application with an IT Center of Excellence

CIO and IT leaders fearful of losing technical controls by handing off some application development and support responsibilities to citizen developers should develop governance and support models. Instead of saying no or letting these become shadow IT programs, IT organizations have the opportunity to partner with citizen developers and their business leaders on programs that deliver efficiencies and innovation.

I’ve been helping establish citizen development programs for over twenty years, first as a CTO in startups, then as a CIO in enterprises, and now with clients as President of StarCIO. The best IT departments have a deeper knowledge of supporting innovation programs, agile development, data governance, information security, and software development lifecycles. Their challenge is to share appropriate levels of this knowledge with citizen developers in the form of defining basic governance and establishing centers of excellence.

Here are five places to start:

  1. Help citizen developers plan their applications before building them. All developers, including citizen developers, enjoy jumping right into developing applications. But the most successful ones quickly brainstorm user personas, end-user roles, workflows, data requirements, integrations, and basic reporting needs to shape the application design. IT should help citizen developers plan these steps and develop basic artifacts before jumping into building applications.
  2. Review plans for architecture and data governance. To avoid creating siloes applications, experienced engineers should help support citizen developers connect to shared resources, including APIs and reference data. New applications should follow naming conventions and patterns recommended by IT’s citizen development center of excellence.
  3. Develop best practices on integrating with enterprise and SaaS solutions. Whether you’re using Salesforce, SAP, MailChimp, or Slack, and using integration tools like Zapier, Workato, or Boomi, defining a strategy for application integrations is a critical success factor. For some types of integrations, IT may empower citizen developers to implement the integration while others are better instrumented directly with IT’s involvement.
  4. Drive standard platform and application security configurations. The security review should start with selecting an enterprise-ready citizen development platform that supports compliance certifications such as SOC 1 / SOC2, HIPAA, EU-US Privacy Shield, and DFARS. Also, CISOs or infosec leaders should review the platform’s security assurances, data encryption, role-based administration controls, and SAML authentication options. When it comes to application development, identifying a standard approach for defining groups, roles, and access rights enables IT to administrate a growing portfolio of citizen developed applications more easily. 
  5. Educate and define version control, application testing, and release management practices. Some of the same rules in application development should apply to citizen developed applications, but citizen developers are unlikely to know the best practices. IT should partner with citizen developers to share knowledge and define practices for developing, testing, and releasing applications so that end-users are not surprised or disrupted by changes.

Citizen Development Enables Digital Transformation

While there are many aspects to how organizations define a digital strategy, digital transformation programs almost always require modernizing how work gets done and enabling the workforce with productive, easy-to-use technologies.

CIO and IT leaders can accelerate their transformation programs by sponsoring citizen development programs. Instead of just enabling the workforce, IT empowers a department’s citizen developers by directly getting them involved in the transformation.

This post is brought to you by Quick Base.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Quick Base.

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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld,, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.