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Why digital transformation is impossible without IT

Mike Fitzmaurice VP of North America , WEBCON
White parachute with impossible written in black upon the canopy

What’s the biggest impediment to digital transformation and innovation? Most organizations today will say it’s IT, but that is a dangerous perspective to have. For instance, according to Gartner, one of the mistakes businesses make when it comes to automation—a critical component of digital transformation—is believing that they can do it without IT. 

Let’s take a step back to figure out how we got to this line of thinking. A lot of it stems from the citizen-development movement—the notion that amateurs can build applications for themselves without any help from IT. But this movement is based on a set of flawed assumptions:

Bypassing IT is tactically attractive, but it’s a strategic mistake. People often have an antiquated view of IT as slow, clueless, unresponsive, and stodgy. Modern IT is not like that. In fact, many people have come to IT by way of citizen development—people who learned critical skills and found they had a talent for coding. There are also people who came from business and now oversee IT—because IT is often involved in the operational logistics that spell the difference between good and bad ability to execute.

In short, IT has evolved. It is no longer the department of “no.” It is now the department of “how.” Yet the old view of IT as a barrier remains. In many organizations, IT has likely not done a good enough job of making people aware of its new imperative. From this perspective, IT needs to be involved in digital transformation efforts to ensure that those efforts succeed.

Waste management

IT won’t endorse automating bad or wasteful activities. The technical professionals are much more likely to make you rethink what you are trying to do before you automate it. They also may make you question whether automating something is always the solution.

It may very well be that you need to focus on the business process itself rather than automating the activity within that process. Once the process as a whole is taken into consideration, you might find better results by automating only part of it.

IT can help prevent wasted effort on overly complicated projects. A lot of people have always associated IT with complicated projects (the old-school monolithic applications), but modern IT tends to embrace a more agile approach. Conversely, citizen development tends to involve a lot of things bolted together through ad hoc guerrilla integration—much like a Rube Goldberg machine.

This can have a big impact on user experiences. A ragtag collection of six developers—citizen or otherwise—without any common standard, playbook, or style guide, will create six very different interfaces, driving users crazy. It also drives companies crazy as training issues balloon. Policies and procedures might be followed in one application and not another. When it comes to user experience, this lack of consistency and reuse can have a hugely negative impact on organizational productivity.

Even if you have a strong commitment to citizen development and even if you have a lot of citizen developers with a lot of expertise, you’ll still need to go to IT for integration. All roads lead to IT whether you like it or not.

The road to integration

Integration in an enterprise—or in an organization of any complexity—isn’t a matter of connecting APIs and data. The APIs and data you want to access and the systems you want to integrate are curated by other people. They're not curated by people acting like bottlenecks; they’re curated by people with expertise in those systems. IT is that glue that holds these systems together.

Even when dealing with a friendly organization, you’re still going to need help to learn what’s in an external system that you want to connect to. The folks that hold the keys will want to know how you’re going to use their data

  • to ensure you aren’t going to do something crazy;
  • to help you use it better; and
  • to figure out if the use case you’re looking to solve for has been done before (perhaps there is some reusable component on their end that can make your life easier).

It’s not about permission; it’s about collaboration. Keeping IT siloed doesn’t work.

The other 90%

IT also helps avoid application orphans. A lot of applications become useful, but then their citizen developers become unavailable (leave the company, go on vacation, etc.). Someone has to look after the application while they are away. This usually falls on IT.

IT is tasked with handling delivery of applications. Construction is only 10% of delivery. Many other critical aspects are involved:

  • Requirements gathering
  • Negotiation
  • Tool selection
  • Design
  • Specifications
  • Debugging
  • Metrics
  • Profiling
  • Auditing
  • Security
  • Maintenance
  • Change management
  • Deployment
  • Iteration
  • Documentation
  • User education
  • IT education

Few citizen developers realize this—and the ones who do barely care, because they view deployment management as something tedious that will slow them down. But as soon as these applications have a user base, those users will likely have priorities that are at least slightly different from those of the original citizen developer. Meeting these priorities will involve training, feedback, and other delivery-management processes to ensure that users aren’t disrupted whenever the citizen developer needs to make changes to the applications. As a result, the citizen developer becomes a de facto mini-IT department.

This is an all-too-common scenario—citizen developers creating great solutions that end up becoming “more trouble than they are worth” once shared with other people.

That 90% of delivery that isn’t construction is what makes IT a sustainable practice. The assumption that all we need to do is eliminate IT to make magic happen is a bad one. Eliminating code isn’t enough. If you are going to develop a solution, you still need to think like a developer—even if you aren’t going to code like one. Code or no code, thinking about design patterns, normalization, notions of reuse, and the like matters a lot.

Bringing IT into the fold the right way

Don’t get me wrong; IT can be a bottleneck, and we cannot tolerate this. But what can we do about it?

There is a third way—between the extremes of formal development and citizen development—called “citizen-assisted development.” One of the key concepts behind this is that of engaging all stakeholders—including users, business decision makers, IT, and technical professionals. With citizen-assisted development, you have a team of peers (sometimes called a “fusion team”) contributing what they do best to create effective applications—while building a larger environment in which applications thrive.

I would characterize citizen development as IT abdication. It puts IT out of the innovation business, involved in systems of record but not systems of innovation. This is not a good long-term strategy. What makes more sense is to have both IT and citizen participation. The idea is to combine people together in the best way possible to contribute what they do best.

What does this look like? Citizens don’t need to build entire applications, but they should build examples—prototypes or guidelines. In other words, they don’t just say what they want and conjure it up in the abstract. Instead, they build an example of what they want without worrying about everything working—because technical people can deal with that later. It should be a living example or specification that they can walk through to see if it represents the way they want the real application to behave. It’s like early-stage citizen development without putting too much responsibility on the citizen.

IT can then take those examples and evolve them into complete applications. The goal is to get the application out there as quickly as possible but accept that it’s going to be imperfect. It won’t be right the first time, but that’s fine as long as IT has the ability to quickly react to feedback—whether from automatically gathered information or from specific proactive requests made by users and business stakeholders. 

Finding a happy medium

Digital transformation exists to have a business impact—and, ideally, change the business culture. Transformation is both a means to an end and a journey in and of itself; it’s about thinking about problems differently and using technology to realize solutions. For decades, organizations relied entirely on centralized development, which didn’t always work out so well. This led the pendulum to swing in the other direction, toward citizen development, in an effort to achieve responsiveness and reduce the amount of communication that needed to take place. For many organizations, the result has been chaotic.

Citizen-assisted development is a happy medium between the two. It means using low-code software to address what made centralized development slow, tedious, and nonresponsive—while bringing back the operational focus that’s lacking in citizen development. So let’s instead collaborate to have the best of both worlds, to make our organizations stronger.

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