“Competitive advantage” refers to how an organization can provide superior or cheaper produced goods and services than a competitor. Two common methods for producing a competitive advantage would be through increasing productivity or developing intellectual property. Both increasing productivity and developing intellectual property are highly dependent on technology. While the common path for organizations would be to hire development talent to support their business users, if business users closest to the problem could do their own development then errors in translating requirements to a technology solution can be greatly reduced. This blog will argue that every organization has untapped talent that can be used to develop technology solutions for driving a competitive advantage.
What I am about to explore is not new. Business users developing their own software based solutions has been going on since at least the early 1990s, ever since personal computers were popularized and individuals had access to spreadsheet applications. For a very long time, the ultimate citizen developer tool has been a spreadsheet application. To this day there are mission critical spreadsheets managing financial reporting, payroll, plant design, and even power grid management for very large organizations. To think, your hot cup of tea this morning was because someone somewhere ran an Excel macro and made adjustments to ensure power to your home was not interrupted. Spreadsheets were built because finance professionals, accountants, engineers, and others had a problem that they could solve with the tools available. The likelihood that we have all been in an organization with an important spreadsheet or two is very high. As a result, strong spreadsheet skills have long been seen as desirable.
A natural curiosity and desire to solve problems drove some individuals to develop advanced spreadsheet skills. Much like the times, technology tools are changing. As the software industry matures, more tools and techniques that were originally exclusive to professional developers are at the fingertips of users willing to take the time to learn. These users who explore new technology and develop technical solutions to problems are commonly referred to as “Power Users”. Today, Power Users can also be referred to as “Citizen Developers”, because they are taking on tasks that would traditionally have been done by a Developer, but without a formal education in software development. A few areas that Citizen Developers can work on developing solutions for are business process automation, data analytics, application development, and A.I. services. While some could argue a spreadsheet could do all of these, even the best swiss army knife is still a swiss army knife.
So where do digital skills fit in all of this? In the days of spreadsheets, new features or enhancements would be released annually at best, or would come when your organization upgraded versions. Keeping skills relevant was largely problem dependent as the tool did not change with significant frequency. Good spreadsheet skills generally remained relevant for years (or decades, in some cases). Today, Citizen Developer tools can see updates almost daily, with significant changes over the timeframe of a few months. Continual maintenance of both skills and managed applications is critical with rapidly changing tools. Citizen Developers now need to pay closer attention to development of the tools they use since functionality of features can dramatically change between releases. Continual updates are typically for the better, but they increase the importance of staying technology relevant, since last year’s solution may not be the best choice for today.
To maximize the benefits of Citizen Development, it is important to keep the number of layers between development and the problem as few as possible. Ideally, the product owner is performing the development and is responsible for future maintenance. Development is handled iteratively, and effort is placed on determining the best methodology for taking an idea to working code in the shortest possible time. These are practices that are second nature for a developer; therefore, there could be value in having a developer act as a lead, mentor, or support for the citizen development team. I fall into the category of Citizen Developer and being able to access a trained developer for feedback or expertise has been invaluable on projects that have stretched my skill set.
Lastly, with Citizen Developers encouraged, your organization has a development pipeline for accumulating intellectual property. Over-time these tools, calculators, and applications form a library of intellectual property that can be leveraged to provide the firm with a competitive advantage. It is not uncommon for an organization to develop a tool to solve an internal problem only to realize that they struck gold with a solution that can be monetized to solve a problem for the industry and uncover an entirely new revenue channel. We all have that spreadsheet wizard in the office who is just waiting to be tapped to solve the next problem, giving them the flexibility to explore, experiment, and develop awesome new solutions for your organization!