Citizen Automation: The Secret Weapon of Digital Transformation

Written By: Jason English
September 27, 2021
7 min read

Bad news: Digital transformation is imperative to the survival of your business, now more than ever.

More bad news: Digital transformation is only going to become more difficult to accomplish over time. The pace of change and disruption will never slow down.

Worst of all: The responsibility for digital transformation (or DX) no longer resides exclusively in the IT department. It will belong to everyone with a stake in success.

This means you: If you are the CIO. Or, in sales. Or in service delivery. Or in the back office.

Whatever your role, if you are not successfully participating in delivering new operational solutions within the next 12 months, then your company has failed to get off the starting blocks.

How have the stakes for DX gotten so high? And where can non-IT-professionals even place their resources, given the steep learning curve of today’s cloud and service-based technology stacks?

Where’s the real battle for transformation?

“It’s what we call the fog of war. You can either sit around worrying what’s real and what’s not, or you can realize the enemy hasn’t got a clue either and fire off a few rounds of psychology. A truly great army is one that only has to rattle its saber to win a war.” — Karen Traviss, Author

Engineering and developer resources are eternally constrained in attempting to manage an ever-expanding hybrid IT application and data estate. Most company CIOs struggle just to keep the lights on with the resources they have, and the IT backlog is well documented

Even if a company allocates more than a standard industry share of its cost basis to increasing its developer headcount, services partners and infrastructure, the rate of growth of the technology stack will easily outstrip the company’s ability to hire and retain engineering talent. Further, the ever increasing demand in IT for digital solutions has made it so that IT has to prioritize specific, high-impact initiatives which results in other needs going unmet.

The good news? Your company is not alone — and even your closest competitors share serious technical constraints to digital transformation.

I’ve often recommended that companies need to up level their technical acumen and be more open to adopting tech-based solutions, especially if this can be done from within the ranks of the company rather than solely through recruiting or acquiring outside resources. Admittedly, that may be easier said than done.

The movement of technical involvement happening away from IT is happening at a rapid pace today. According to recent Gartner® research, “Dependent on industry, business technologists make up between 28% and 55% of the workforce.” ¹

For most companies, transforming business professionals into full-stack developers would be nearly impossible, given their ongoing duties and existing skill sets. Adopting Agile methodologies or DevOps approaches can be very useful for project engagement with developers, but the investments can have diminishing returns if non-technical resources can’t crack the code.

What levers can companies exploit to get more of the business productively involved in software delivery and highly performant operations?

Taking the middle way with Citizen Automation

You can think of citizen automation as the broad democratization of technology disciplines; it’s the middle road between two technology movements: citizen development, which includes no-code, low-code and related development assistance tools for non-developers, and a broad class of new and mature tools under the general banner of process automation, such as DPA (digital process automation), RPA (robotic process automation), and BPM (business process management).

The citizen development movement started with the earliest drag-and-drop ‘app builders’ and even macros in Excel which astute analysts could bend to their will. These early efforts informed the design of today’s much more sophisticated no-code and low-code solutions which can generate services and apps for use in multiple form factors.

Process automation concepts arose first from manually managed paper trails and Kanban boards, and evolved through workflow, task and performance management tools, which provided the core heartbeat of a business work process.

Today’s DPA and RPA solutions seek to make the capture and generation of these processes highly repeatable and executable through an automation interface, whether this is done by mining process data or replaying human and machine interactions.

Systems of record and systems of work aren’t judgmental, they should simply reflect what happened and what is happening in the business. Citizen automation should be able to make valuable use and reuse of business data for work, without creating insurmountable technical hurdles.

If our technical resources will always be understaffed and overworked, how can we find a middle way between these two disciplines to make citizen automation capabilities responsive to business leaders, and not just developers?

Solving the hard problems

Traditional software development and integration work is hard. New system requirements usually get added to the IT request queue, and much-needed process fixes become trouble tickets that join the support backlog, perhaps adding to surmounting technical debt.

But there’s a silver lining.

Line of business folks have a much more intimate understanding of the work to be done and the business logic behind decisions and tradeoffs, so if properly empowered, they can even outpace conventional development teams in creating and maintaining usable assets.

There are three modes for building citizen automation assets:

  • Identifying and replacing manual processes. After a search for paper-based and spreadsheet-enabled processes within the business, teams set about identifying opportunities for improvement — replacing unstructured data and manual work with functional equivalents.One energy company, Sturgeon Electric, took just this approach in enabling their Field Service teams to stop ‘pushing paper’ on service calls, which was delaying some work and invoicing processes. Using Quickbase, the firm created user-friendly digital work order apps for field technicians to execute on their devices, which communicate data directly to the home office’s core systems, shaving an average of 15 days off their invoice cycle times.
  • Orchestrating existing systems of record and API-based services. Most known core business systems and SaaS applications are operable through SoR using pre-built integrations that leverage API based services — which gives citizen automation teams the ability to quickly mash up their own new applications atop existing services, and improve orchestration from there.For example, an HR team could build an employee onboarding app which presents one simple input interface, but executes API calls to the employee identity management system, equipment requisition, accounting, payroll, healthcare setup, and performance management — rather than visiting all of these apps separately.
  • Designing custom apps with assistance from development teams. Take for instance a high-tech manufacturing company whose global supply chain is feeling the pinch of chip shortages at dozens of its hundreds of interconnected suppliers.The CIO in this scenario might assign some limited IT project management and development resources to make sure the right IT resources were deployed and that there was a safe and secure data transfer pipeline to data stores that did not have pre-built integrations. Meanwhile, the citizen automation business users build expected workflows atop that data pipeline in a no-code app for dealing with inventory shortages and multi-vendor order fulfillment workarounds.

The Intellyx Take

Much lip service has been given in support of lofty digital transformation initiatives — but if DX isn’t intimately aligned with the real-world capabilities and limitations of the organization, it won’t survive.

Forcing functions such as remote work and market globalization are driving CIOs to rethink the partnership of IT with citizen development-led teams to deliver new applications and accelerate the automation of essential business functions.

Citizen automation might just be the secret weapon for companies to not just survive but thrive in this challenging business environment.

¹ Source: Gartner, Presentation: Democratized Technology Delivery: The CIO’s New Opportunity to Boost the Value of IT”, By CIO Research Team, 24 June 2021. GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission

©2021 Intellyx LLC. Intellyx retains editorial control over the content of this document. At the time of writing, Quickbase is an Intellyx customer.

Written By: Jason English