15. September 2022 By Daniel Sorna, Alexey Shmelkin and Ibrahim Kizilarslan
Using low-code to bring shadow IT to light
The features of low-code
Probably the most well-known applications of low-code are what are called low-code development platforms (LCDPs), such as OutSystems, Mendix, AgilePoint, Microsoft PowerApps, Salesforce or ServiceNow. These platforms offer a toolbox with which developers as well as ‘citizen developers’ (users with little programming knowledge) can easily create their own applications.
The essential tools of low-code can be broadly summarised in the following categories:
- Low-code utilises easy-to-use methods, such as graphical (business) logic modelling, to generate software application functions.
- Graphical interfaces, process models and data models can be created and configured visually, mostly via the drag-and-drop method. The user utilises of a range of ready-made components, such as UI, process or integration elements, and can create their own application modularly.
- A high degree of standardisation and reusing components simplifies and accelerates the development process. LCDPs usually offer their own marketplace with ready-made modules that can be configured and are ready to implement.
- Modern low-code development platforms are provided as more than just on-premises solutions. They are also being provided with increasing frequency (and preferably) as Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solutions or in a hybrid form. This allows for secure, pre-configured and monitored deployment. In the optimal scenario, the created application can even be deployed with a single click (one-click deployment).
Citizen developer framework – or what they achieve using the low-code approach
The term ‘citizen developer’ describes employees outside the IT departments who are given the ability to develop software independently with the help of low-code platforms. Little to no software development experience is required when developing software using low-code.
IT departments are extremely overloaded
While more developers are needed, recruiting the appropriate amount of personnel is a very slow and expensive process. The demand for IT solutions is huge and often cannot be met. Dealing with requests requires multiplying capacities that do not exist anyway. Due to the lack of resources (developers, money, time) and the overload placed on IT departments, specialist departments often take initiative themselves and develop their own proprietary applications, usually with the aid of existing tools such as Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access. They create decentralised applications, which, in companies, are unwelcome and frowned upon.
Among the things that characterise a citizen developer is the fact that they are not specialised personnel. Their main advantages can ultimately be seen in the implementation of technical requirements. With this additional manpower, digitalisation can be driven forward at a noticeably faster pace.
While using citizen developers is encouraged, doing so can also pose challenges and risks for companies. By using them, companies run the risk of what is known as ‘shadow IT’ getting out of hand. Applications are no longer developed under the supervision of a centralised management team, but rather they are developed individually and independently in the specialists departments, which makes it outright impossible to manage them centrally.
Bringing shadow IT to light
There is only one way to completely prevent such decentralised applications from being created outside of a centralised IT department: have all the employees work without computers. In all other cases, auxiliary solutions are always developed, be it in Excel, Access or other tools. It is simply human nature to automate repetitive tasks in some way or another. With low-code, this battle between IT and business departments can finally be brought to an end in order to create added value together and become less annoyed with one another. But how is that supposed to work? In order to do this, both parties must first do what is seemingly impossible:
- 1) On the one hand, the central IT department has to accept that specialised departments are allowed to create IT applications as well. However, certain rules must be strictly followed.
- 2) On the other hand, the specialist departments have to accept that the central IT department is responsible for (almost) all IT applications. Therefore, the IT department requires that there be rules and processes that the specialist departments must adhere to.
Which rules lead to success then? The trick here is to find the perfect balance between freedoms and restrictions in order to exploit the employees’ spirit of progress as much as possible and create a safe environment for them to produce such innovations. To do this, a citizen developer framework must be introduced. A centre of excellence (CoE) for low-code should be established in the company episodically and assume the following tasks:
- 1) Defining things such as best practices, naming conventions and/or security guidelines, which are indispensable components for the low-code development process.
- 2) Increasing expertise regarding how to deal with different applications – an essential task. What is actually allowed to remain in the specialist departments (for example, small applications that do not map critical processes or proofs of concepts (PoCs), which must be managed by a CoE) are medium-sized applications that do not have critical non-functional requirements and must be handed over to the central IT department.
Monitoring the flow of applications from citizen developers to a CoE all the way to the central IT department is the task of a solution architect or the CTO. LCDPs make every application visible at the same time. This transparency is the key to success for finally getting shadow IT under control. The spectrum of use cases for low-code is enormous, which is why introducing the citizen developer framework must be done gradually and in a targeted manner.
Exploiting the potential of low-code
Low-code is an approach, not a technology in itself. The rapid provision of low-code tools makes it possible to test ideas within a few hours or days. The approach has already revolutionised some areas to the point that they are no longer consciously described as low-code. Creating dashboards and analysing data used to be done in languages such as Python, R or Mathematica. With the launch of Power BI as a low-code tool, it was suddenly possible for non-developers to create such analyses on their own. It is now common knowledge that Power BI consists of ready-made building blocks and connectors. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are in high demand, and these technologies can also be used by non-developers to create their own solutions using various low-code tools, such as KNIME. A diversified and heterogeneous system landscape in companies leads to a confusing mess of interfaces with different technologies. This is where low-code solutions, such as Mulesoft, can help to finally create transparency and order.
Low-code robotic process automation tools, such as UiPath, make it possible to automate even old legacy systems and connect new applications to them, even if they have no interfaces. This creates an enormous amount of added value, especially for banks, but in other industries as well. Standard applications and processes, such as approving invoices, requesting orders or onboarding processes, exist in every company but are used in different ways. What do the approval processes look like? Do they run in sequence or in parallel? Which authorisations are intended for which users? These issues are not only technically complex, but they can also constantly change. Using low-code makes it possible to address these issues more quickly and easily and deliver added value at an unprecedented speed.
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