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Citizen Developers Unite! Avoiding Tool Anarchy

I recently came across some Gartner research insights from almost a year ago that I had read previously and enjoyed. The findings concerned “citizen developers” – people creating solutions outside of the jurisdiction of enterprise IT. Discussed at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo last year in Chicago, Eric Knipp, senior research analyst at Gartner, predicted that citizen developers would create “at least 25 percent of new business applications” by 2014.

I agree wholeheartedly with Knipp’s explanation as to the evolution of citizen-developed applications, although if end users are going to focus on building business process management services and automated workflows, then they’re not “citizen developers” – they’re business users. According to Knipp, these users will:

“…leverage IT investments below the surface, allowing IT to focus on deeper architectural concerns, while end users focus on wiring together services into business processes and workflows.”

Knipp provides a few examples of why citizen developers are rising in influence, with the main reason being that they can pursue tasks IT has never had time to address before.

Business users are tired of having their needs and application requests ignored by IT, and as user-friendly automation tools continue to gain traction the business side will start to rebel. IT has a critical choice right now – it can facilitate a positive development environment using business-centric process automation tools and retain some measure of control over what happens in the company, or it can maintain the status quo. If it chooses the latter, you can be sure that business users are going to meet their own needs ‘under the radar.’ IT will then have to confront a messy technology stack with a lot of overlap (e.g. business users will have purchased and/or built five different tools that do the same thing). Either IT can join the movement and empower the business user or sit back and watch as business users stage a “tool mutiny” and build their own applications with zero oversight and potential security flaws.

Seems far-fetched? Hardly. Knipp lays out several reasons why “tool anarchy” would be desirable for business users.

First is “mass personalization,” which is “custom tailoring by a company” in regards to “end users’ tastes and references.” Knipp makes a very good point when he acknowledges that “end users start to become developers when they start to personalize software for their use.” Again, mass personalization is about employing a flexible solution. With stackable hardware and enterprise software suites that carry painful EULAs, there are no options for personalization. You have purchased a license to pre-established software and you must use it in exactly the way it was designed.

People are rebelling against this boxed-in way of operating. The rise of “infrastructure industrialization,” Knipp’s second justification, is a result of the advent of cloud computing and SaaS. It’s so much easier and more freeing for people to access just the tools they need online and use them as a foundation for development and discovery as opposed to functioning within a creative mousetrap.

Knipp’s third point is that “changing demographics” are influencing the rise of citizen developers; as younger people who have grown up with computers enter the workforce they’ll have much less tolerance for red tape. They’ll expect solutions to “just work,” and won’t react positively to being told that some technical function isn’t possible. They’ve seen the movement from audiocassettes to MP3s, VHS to Netflix, analog phone calls to FaceTime. They know that successful technology is fluid.

It’s important for us to keep in mind that having business users building applications isn’t an anomaly or a signal that IT is losing its grip. It’s a wonderful reflection of how process automation and productivity solutions are within reach for users of any background. However, when IT drives the business side to take matters into their own hands out of frustration rather than educating and empowering them, things are going to end badly.

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