The Rise of the Citizen Developer

MaryBeth Folger News

RPA citizen developer

In recent years, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software providers have prioritized “low-code” and “no-code” robot development solutions. The intent behind the no-code craze, aside from selling more licenses, is to enable citizen development. The concept of citizen development is simple: make the platform so easy to use that non-technical users could develop their own robots. While employee empowerment is great, is it right for your RPA initiative?

Low-code/no-code: hype or reality?

In-house RPA programs have historically been built by experienced personnel dedicated to the program, which typically consists of process analysts, business analysts, and developers. Analysts to aide in process understanding, improvement, and documentation. Developers to design, build, operate, and maintain robotic workforces. As RPA software moved further toward drag-and-drop WYSIWYG interfaces and pre-built code libraries, the natural assumption was that these user-friendly improvements would open RPA to less experienced users. This was appealing to companies that were looking for ways to dramatically reduce the cost of in-house robot development. And what better way to offset that cost than to shift development to non-IT employees, right?

For now, the citizen developer craze is more hype than reality. Here are a few reasons why:

  • RPA is not something the average business user can pick up in a day, or even in a few months. There is a cost to the business, in time and overhead, of shifting full-time employees from their current full-time responsibilities to robot development. Employees not only have to learn RPA software, they must know the process well enough to automate it, understand how to translate that process into a robot, and understand how that robot will interact with, and impact, other robots in your workforce. The alternative to this scenario is citizen developers building robots to handle menial tasks that will never graduate to the robot pool or generate ROI for the business, which is contradictory to the entire premise of RPA.
  • Even as companies embark on process improvement initiatives, the majority of business processes will remain complex. The automated representation of those processes will not be any less complex. While RPA vendors populate their automation libraries with pre-built, reusable code, customization is still required to make it work with your specific systems and processes. Customization requires a technical and analytical understanding of the business process itself, as well as the coding necessary to modify a particular function to fit your unique environment.
  • Citizen developers will still require oversight from IT and/or experienced RPA personnel. Robots developed by business users must be subjected to Quality Assurance/Quality Control checks to ensure they properly represent the process itself and follow automation best practices. IT personnel will be needed to test and monitor the robots, as well as troubleshoot and resolve any issues that come up. The time spent by IT managing and maintaining the work of citizen developers is a significant cost companies must consider. Experienced personnel can automate processes of greater complexity more quickly and at a higher quality than citizen developers. The resulting robots are also more likely to generate revenue for the business. Striking the balance is key.
Deploying citizen developers

While few companies have full-time citizen developers, those that do have deployed them in creative ways. Business users can be utilized to automate low-hanging administrative tasks like approving timesheets, employee onboarding, handling simple department requests, etc. They can also work alongside process analysts to aid in the process documentation and improvement projects.

Before any company forms a dedicated citizen development team, the automation Center of Excellence (COE) should first evaluate if their citizen personnel have the right skills. From there, the business can decide if opportunities exist that will align with those skillsets and truly provide value to the business.