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The Case for Citizen Developer Micro-Products, From the Forest to the Trees



Everyone is going digital. The need for companies to engage in a complete digital transformation is now a foregone conclusion. Countless CEOs have nominated CIOs to deploy AI, AR, IoT, and RPA, by leveraging APIs in the cloud. These acronyms are all the rage at shareholder meetings, but how do these abstract concepts trickle down to rank-and-file employees in their everyday work?


The digital transformation is like anything else: it’s a matter of perspective and perception. To illustrate, let us consider the point of view of employees at every level of an organization, from the top down.


C-Level Executives: The World




COVID-19 has removed any remaining doubts about the need to go digital, and fast. Digital transformation is no longer a priority for most executives, it’s a matter of survival. According to the October 2020 Highlights of the Fortune/Deloitte CEO survey, 85% of CEOs agree that their digital transformation has significantly accelerated during the COVID crisis. [1]


CEOs have recruited and entrusted innovative and experienced IT executives to lead their transformation. The 2020 Deloitte and WSJ Intelligence global survey states that “CEOs see technology leaders as their primary strategy partner, more than all other C-suite roles combined”.


This survey also highlights their challenges. Two-thirds of CEOs note history (legacy environment, existing transformation project, history of ineffective delivery) as being their biggest challenge in leveraging tech to drive impact. Over half of them deplore a lack of talent, a lack of business vision, and a cultural resistance to change as their main roadblocks. [2]


Ineffective delivery? Cultural resistance? But why? The C-Level executives aren’t quite sure yet, but they are on a mission to find out. Perhaps answers can be found further down the command line… In any case, despite some initial failures, their overall strategy is succeeding. Already, the positive impacts of the digital transformation far outweigh the setbacks.


Their resolve unbroken, they command the troops to move forward with steadfast determination. Their shareholders expect nothing less.


Upper-level management: The Forest




Inspired by their C-level executives and empowered by ramped up budgets, upper management is spearheading transformative enterprise-wide projects. In fact, many have changed their lingo. Recognizing that the digital transformation is an open-ended process, they have replaced the word “project”, which is inherently finite, with the word “product”, which implies ongoing development.


A survey by Twilio shows that 79% of enterprise decision-makers “say that COVID-19 increased the budget for digital transformation”. Looking ahead, 92% of business leaders “say their organization is very or somewhat likely to expand digital communication channels as the world reopens. 54% said COVID-19 propelled focus on omnichannel communications.” [3]


A report by Calgary Economic Development highlights how corporations in various industries have prioritized and successfully deployed transformative enterprise-wide flagship projects. Data-driven customer portals providing detailed analytics, social media analytics, customer-centric apps, AI-powered customer service chatbots… even block-chain beer. [4]


All these success stories have two things in common: they are customer-facing “products” and they required massive resources to develop.


Corporations are going digital on the outside, but how do these great accomplishments increase Jeannine’s productivity at accounts receivable? Or Mohammed in purchasing? How do they feel engaged by the company’s digital transformation? Upper management recognizes the need to modernize their corporate culture, to ensure the digital transformation empowers employees at every level of their organization. They are now ready to “go digital inside”, but how?


IT Departments: The Forest Topography




It has been a busy year for IT departments. At the onset of the crisis, Spiceworks Ziff Davis reports that the demand for video conferencing solutions surged by 60%, with similar demand for virtual desktop infrastructure. In the following months, they scrambled to bolster network security. They had to adapt as their budget allocations shifted from on-premises hardware to the cloud. [5]


Nevertheless, a survey by Flexera shows that digital transformation is the top priority for IT departments, with cybersecurity a close second. Their digital journey is fraught with numerous challenges, which are compounded by a lack of resources and expertise. So few people available to recruit, so much to do!


As they are busy addressing the CFO’s concerns about cloud spend management, the legal department comes knocking on their virtual door worried about compliance. Yet, their main concern is governance. This comes as no surprise, as a new trend toward IT spend decentralization emerges. Indeed, 26% of IT spend is now controlled by business units rather than by the IT departments themselves. [6]


Although IT departments may initially feel threatened by IT spend decentralization, this trend may help them address their recruitment challenges. If they can manage to build an effective security framework and to enforce proper governance, IT departments could empower autonomous business units to develop their own solutions, using their own resources. This would allow IT teams to focus on flagship products prioritized by upper management.


Front-line management: The Trees




Front-line managers had a rough year. They had to adapt to the exponential rate of change in their organizations, brought about by COVID-19. Sick leaves, work-from-home, furloughs, downsizing, new health and safety obligations, everchanging governmental COVID-19 restrictions… No wonder they had little time to read those e-mails from upper management about digital transformation. Digital what again?


In a recent blog post, Marcus Erb, Vice President of Data Science & Innovation at Great Place to Work® states, “Frontline managers are central to creating an Innovation By All culture. Because they are the leaders most employees interact with the most, they have a tremendous impact on whether the workforce as a whole is inventive and agile.


And since they span the boundary between customer experience and corporate strategy, they are uniquely positioned to spot new product possibilities as well as better ways of operating. As a result, great ideas often come from frontline managers.”

Yet, their research shows that frontline managers are 70% less likely than executives to experience innovation. They often feel that “upper management is divorced from the realities of the business.” [7]


If given the necessary tools and resources, frontline managers could propel a company’s digital transformation. If not, they risk hindering the corporate strategy. Also, they stand to benefit the most from the increased productivity of their workers, brought about by locally relevant digital transformation initiatives.


Front-line workers: The Leaves




Bottom line, a company’s success depends on the engagement, productivity, and customer-centricity of its rank-and-file workers. A diverse, motivated, and dedicated workforce is the key to the deployment of any corporate strategy and, indeed, the key to a successful digital transformation.


A report by IFS, entitled “The Undeniable People Factor” highlights the importance of employee engagement in the digital transformation process. Jane Keith, Chief Human Resources Officer at IFS states: “People can act as both an enabler and a barrier in digital transformation. If change management is handled effectively and employees are aware and inspired to support the transformation, the business is much more likely to reap success. The key learning from this study is that staff involvement should not be seen as a just a tick-box exercise. Rather, people are the secret sauce in any transformative initiative and what will ultimately determine the outcome.”


The report shows that nearly a third of digital transformations fail because “employees weren’t engaged on the project.” While nearly 40% of employees believe that “technology can offer existing employees new opportunities to upskill, work smarter and be more effective at their jobs”, over 20% of employees responded that “employee engagement is more of a tick-box exercise in business as opposed to being critical.” [8]


Research by the Boston Consulting Group reveals both the similarities and the discrepancies between the manager’s and employee’s perceptions of the digital transformation. A consensus has been reached at all enterprise levels as to the willingness to participate in the transformation; 86% of managers and 76% of employees agree.


Nearly a third of employees even believe that their company’s digital transformation isn’t moving fast enough. However, while close to 90% of managers feel involved in the transformation, only 65% of employees feel the same.


Unfortunately, less than 50% of workers can see the “direct benefit of a transformation for their job, career or pay”. As such, only 61% of employees endorse their company’s approach, versus 73% of managers. Managers and employees alike believe training, upskilling, and recruitment have been the “least successful elements of their digital transformation”. [9]


In practice, as corporations deploy IoT drones and AI-powered webshops, Jeannine and Mohammed are still drag-and-dropping data into Sharepoint daily. One could understand their cynicism about the digital transformation, but it is not too late to get them on board the bandwagon.


Front-line workers are willing to participate in their company’s digital transformation, but they need to be involved and empowered to do so. Easier said than done. How can thousands of employees be given the freedom to develop their own solutions, while respecting overall corporate strategy and IT governance? How can this be done without exposing the company to data breaches and other cybersecurity risks?


Skills: The Currency of the Digital Transformation




Recent research in the UK, resulting from a partnership between Microsoft and Dr. Chris Brauer at Goldsmiths, University of London, offers interesting insights into solutions to empower “Next-Gen Workers” to play an active role in their company’s digital transformation.


According to Simon Lambert, Chief Learning Officer at Microsoft UK, “Skills are the currency of digital transformation.” Yet, nearly 70% of UK business leaders surveyed by Goldsmiths acknowledge that their organization has a digital skills gap.


Realizing the problem, 78% of leaders “see having a large digital skills talent pool as essential to driving UK competitiveness on the global stage”. They also agree that “productive digital skills, which allow someone to create new digital tools and systems for others to adopt, deliver nearly double the impact on business performance as consumptive skills, which enable people to use digital solutions that have been built by others.”


Unfortunately, management is not too sure how to bridge the digital skills gap. Leaders report the following top barriers to investing in digital skills:

  • Lack of budget (for reskilling, training courses, hiring) (37.22%)
  • Lack of strategy regarding digital skills investment (27.29%)
  • Lack of knowledge on which skills initiatives to invest in (22.98%)
  • Lack of knowledge regarding the employees who need to be skilled (20.24%)
  • Low expectation on employee motivation for reskilling efforts (16.30%)
  • Low expectation for the return on skills investments (14.75%)
  • - Board member buy-in (14.07%)

In short, leaders want their employees to acquire digital skills; they just don’t know who, what, when, where, why, and how to train them. The good news is that employees are willing and able to learn. “73% of UK workers are NextGen Workers: people who possess a combination of high consumptive skills as well as emerging productive skills”, the study reports.


Moreover, “17% of employees currently feel able to create digital tools and systems for other workers to adopt.” Although this percentage may seem small, it represents a huge pool of untapped resources that are already present in organizations. Further developing the skills of these existing workers may help to alleviate the difficulties in recruiting new workers, and may in fact promote worker engagement, loyalty, and retention.


The study states that “digital upskilling is a social responsibility as well as a commercial edge. Democratizing tech, helping workers increase their own employability, and opening STEM-based [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] careers to underrepresented groups can help build a better, fairer society.” [10]


Citizen Developer Micro-Products




Getting back to Jeannine and Mohammed’s daily drag-and-drop ritual. Management has already prioritized and successfully deployed flagship enterprise-wide digital transformation initiatives to automate repetitive work processes which are common amongst large groups of employees. Yet, tasks specific to a single individual or a small team remain mostly manual.


The IT department has no time, willingness, or mandate to address such tasks. Upper management in different business units already compete to get their major initiatives on the IT agenda. Jeannine and Mohammed don’t stand a chance to make the list.

After all, they are just two people spending a mere 15 minutes every day drag-and-dropping files into Sharepoint. No big deal, right? The thing is, the corporation employs thousands of workers just like them, with their own specific small-scale use cases, most of whom would much rather do more gratifying work.


Jeannine loves technology. Her coworkers often come to her for help using VLOOKUPs (she uses XLOOKUPs now) and PivotTables in Excel. She just finished automating her home with smart lighting and thermostats. “Hey Google, set the living room to party mode!” Her friends think it's pretty cool. She is curious, ambitious, and open to new ideas. She decides the drag-and-drop ritual needs to end.


She already received training from HR on Word, Excel, Outlook, and Sharepoint. She had noticed the “Automate” button in the Sharepoint ribbon before, but she never dared to click. One day, she decided, what the heck, let’s try it out. Within minutes, she had set up her first flow to retrieve attachments from incoming e-mails and drop them into Sharepoint.


Jeannine gets along with Mohammed. They met during an online Teams training session. They had joked about the company’s new IoT drones and how they still had to drag-and-drop files into Sharepoint. Mohammed is a dedicated employee, but he’s the type who still uses an old Motorola flip phone.


She called up Mohammed on Teams to tell him about what she had discovered. She offered to set up a similar Power Automate flow for him. Mohammed shared his screen, gave her the control, and within minutes, presto, it was done.


Jeannine had just created two micro-products, one for her and one for her friend Mohammed. Emboldened and motivated, she headed to Microsoft Learn and followed learning paths, at her own pace, to sharpen her skills. Within weeks, she went from being Jeannine the AR clerk to Jeannine the Citizen Developer. She can now develop relatively complex apps to automate user or team-specific apps at scale. She is studying to earn her Microsoft App Maker certification. Later, she hopes to learn about Azure Logic Apps… if IT ever gives her access.


The fictitious story of Jeannine and Mohammed illustrates a point: leveraging tools companies already have, such as the Microsoft Power Platform, and free training, such as Microsoft Learn, employees can be empowered to be active contributors to their company’s digital transformation.


Of course, Jeannine also had actual AR work to do. Simply adding new micro-product development tasks to her existing workload would be unfair and stifle her innovative spirit. To truly leverage the potential of citizen developers, companies need to create new roles to this effect within their organization.


Although the previous story is fictitious, the story of Samit Saini at Heathrow Airport is all too real. Samit had a front-line security job when he received basic Office 365 training from his employer. Demonstrating the same curiosity as Jeannine, one fateful night Samit began exploring the many aspects of the Microsoft solution. He discovered Power Apps and developed a simple app to assist security workers in dealing with non-English speaking travelers.


“Heathrow Airport is always open to technological advancements that increase productivity, but when the airport granted its entire workforce access to Microsoft Office 365, few could have expected the incredible impact a handful of first-line employees would realize through Microsoft Power Apps. Through the low-code development of 30 apps, Heathrow employees have eliminated 75,000 pages of paperwork and reduced data entry by nearly 1,000 hours, helping the airport reduce its costs.” [11]


Today, Samit Saini is an IT Solutions Specialist at London Heathrow Airport, and a Microsoft Business Application MVP. [12]

Although the impact of a single micro-product may be small in and of itself, thousands of micro-products can truly transform the way front-line employees work in an enterprise at scale.


Furthermore, the ROI on micro-product initiatives can be significant. Simple or moderately complex tasks can be automated within hours or days, with little or no investment other than the citizen developer’s salary. All they need is access to Microsoft 365, which most already have. The payback on many citizen developer initiatives can be counted in weeks, days, or even hours.


IT should be concerned about burgeoning groups of non-IT citizen developers. There is indeed a governance and security risk involved in empowering these individuals. Dealing with numerous low-code/no-code development platforms would be a nightmare for IT. Furthermore, data security and integrity are always the top priorities.


Happily, by deploying the Microsoft Power Platform as the only authorized no-code/low-code platform within an organization, IT can easily monitor, control, and oversee the initiatives of citizen developers. They can set security profiles with precise read/write privileges, down to the field (column) level. Thus, citizen developers can be empowered to innovate in a way that aligns with IT governance, without compromising sensitive data.


The beauty of the Power Platform is that it integrates seamlessly with the Office tools everybody already uses. The learning curve is shortened and the adoption-rate of IT-endorsed tools, such as Microsoft Teams, is maximized.


Citizen developers can also dramatically increase an organization’s agility, at least from the point of view of the front-line workers. As user-specific use cases change and evolve, the micro-products can be quickly updated by citizen developers, virtually located at an arm’s length from the micro-product users.


As citizen developers gain hands-on experience and pursue more advanced learning paths, they may become, in time, full-stack developers in their own right. Like Samit, these Next-Gen workers can become ambassadors for the organization’s digital transformation.




The question is not whether to prioritize flagship products developed by IT or micro-products developed by citizen developers. Both are important elements of a company’s complete digital transformation. C-level executives, upper management, IT departments, frontline management, and employees need to work together toward a common goal to achieve success. The efforts of individuals must be appreciated, recognized, and rewarded, notwithstanding their position in the company.


Despite all the technological progress, the bottom line is today what it always was: business is people.


The digital transformation is not about the forest or the trees. It’s about creating an innovation ecosystem.


About the author: Charles Séguin is passionate about automating the boring stuff so his team can focus on what matters most: the customer. Based just outside of Montreal, Canada, he works at Lumen, a division of Sonepar, the global market leader in B2B distribution of electrical products, solutions, and related services. 


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