The new generation of technologists

What if workers could create their own applications and digital services without the need for IT specialists? Welcome to the new tech leaders

To innovate at speed, all businesses need IT specialists' expertise to create the applications and digital services they need. But what if every member of a workforce had the power, knowledge and skills to develop the apps and services they need themselves? As the democratisation and consumerisation of technology continue, are we all now tech leaders?

Accenture asked this question in its most recent Technology Trends report, finding that new emerging technologies like low-code platforms, robotic process automation (RPA) and natural language processing (NLP), are placing “powerful technology capabilities … into people's hands, usable without highly specialised skills”. It adds that “democratised technology lets people optimise their work or fix pain points on their own”.

Speaking to IT Pro, Billy McNeil, director of IT, operations and transformation at BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT), endorses the need for businesses to embrace their staff's empowerment as technical innovators. “We recognise that development and utilisation of systems capability to enable the organisation to operate more effectively and efficiently is crucial to business success,” says McNeil.

“Delivering on this can’t just be the preserve of the IT Department or it becomes a bottleneck in business development and innovation. With digital roles and understanding of data systems now pervading organisations more than ever (rather than being the preserve of the IT department) using this capacity to develop business capability faster is simply common sense.”

Building an AI-based bot, enhancing a team's collaboration with an app, or developing a new dashboard approach to analytics, are now possible thanks to low or no-code application development tools that are readily available. All that is needed is the drive and ambition to use them.

Power to the people

Of course, every employee isn’t an engineer, nor will they all need or even want to create their own applications. Nevertheless, the Accenture study concluded that 86% of executives agree their organisations need to train more people to think like technologists. Businesses can undoubtedly empower anyone across their workforces to get involved with education, training and tools. However, care should be taken to ensure workers are not forced to become developers. 

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Application development platforms such as Microsoft Power Apps, AppSheet, odoo and Caspio offer a new employee empowerment age. Often, there is friction between IT departments and the teams they serve. When IT becomes democratised, and every employee is a technologist, businesses reap the rewards of these closer working relationships with shared understanding, driving new products and the strategic development of services.

How transformative an open approach to application and service development can be is outlined by Christian Kitchen, head of technology at Miller Insurance, who tells IT Pro: “As non-IT business units are able to take a greater role in software development, this will remove pressure from the IT department and provide opportunities for improving technical literacy among non-IT staff. To empower these citizen developers, we have started hosting training sessions on the Mendix solution where we have shown how a simpler approach means that non-technical staff can get involved with software development at every stage.”

The technologies that can now be used by virtually all workers can deliver advanced tools, as Alex Halper, COO for conversational AI at Deloitte, outlines: "For me, the most exciting part is that it lowers the barrier to entry for working with AI. Long term, it will create more opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship, as tools become more accessible, and enable businesses and developers to get started without huge upfront investment or a daunting ROI hurdle.”

Speaking to IT Pro, Paul French, director of business intelligence at Nationwide, explains how encouraging the building society’s staff to participate in technology development has delivered tangible advantages. "We are encouraging increased participation in self-service analytics via services such as Qlik, equipping employees with the knowledge and skills to easily create insight to address business problems when and where they are needed. By demonstrating the value data can provide different teams across the business, we are encouraging the entire organisation to consider how data can benefit them in their role.”

Transforming business

The digital transformation roadmaps businesses had been following until spring 2020 were derailed as COVID-19 took hold. One year later, enterprises once again have to make significant changes to their working processes and how they organise their remote workforces. Delivering the IT services needed has meant a new approach. The consumerisation of tech has continued as the lines between business and personal digital devices continue to blur.

In this scenario, it’s a small step for individuals or teams to begin to shape the digital services and tools they need to do their jobs efficiently. This new approach to using technology is being driven by what AppDynamics call Agents of Transformation who have “all the personal skills and attributes needed to drive innovation, and they operate within organisations that have the right culture, leadership and tools in place to enable successful digital and business transformation”.

Is more staff participation in how the digital transformation roadmaps businesses are now following post-COVID-19 delivering results? French believes so.

“We have implemented a range of activities to grow our data culture and levels of literacy, including ideas such as creating a Visual Vocabulary using Qlik Sense which allows users to have a ‘starter kit’ to display insights in the best way for easy consumption by employees at a range of data literacy levels. Raising the general awareness of the importance of data has encouraged employees to engage with it and learn more about how it can improve their day-to-day work lives.”

The impact the pandemic has had on businesses is unprecedented. How enterprises react and re-build their operations and workforces will be via a range of digital tools and services. As Kitchen concludes, when every employee becomes a technologist, businesses can innovate at speed. “To enable the innovation our business requires, we need to move technology as close as possible to the real subject matter experts in our business units. It’s so much easier to innovate when you not just know what is possible but can actually build it yourself.”

How businesses harness the technologies available to them is rapidly changing. An IT department driven innovation program is today too narrow and simplistic. Of course, large and complex IT projects will be managed via traditional development routes; but businesses need to be agile with product and service creation timelines shortening each year. Empowering employees to become technologies and innovators is a powerful business strategy.

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