Empowering Citizen Developers the Right Way
Empowering Citizen Developers the Right Way
Alec Sprague is not an IT guy. His background is in consumer advocacy, but in his position as database developer for Work for Progress, he has instituted a culture of citizen development at the fast-growing nonprofit organization.

“Our organization is scrappy,” Sprague said. “We operate on shoestring budgets to maximize our benefit to society and our return-on-investment for our funders and donors.”

At the beginning of his tenure with Work for Progress, Sprague struggled with outdated systems and felt the organization’s issues were too important to waste time with antiquated technology. “In the past year, we’ve made a more intentional push at digital transformation, moving a lot of our data out of siloed systems and into the cloud so that we could save everyone’s time and productivity,” he told an audience at QuickBase’s #EMPOWER2016 user conference in Nashville, TN.

In the last year and a half, Work for Progress has developed 22 applications, including 12 apps that are each used by more than one department and more than 80 people. This from an organization that doesn’t even have an IT department!

App Progress at Work for Progress

One example of this citizen developer led transformation took place within Human Resources. The group was working with paper files and using a clunky database. Sprague taught a representative to build an app that would bring all of the group’s data online in one place. He followed up with weekly calls to workshop questions and problems. The whole department now uses the app, with several team members working on front-facing dashboards and workflows so that supervisors can take action on benefits and other HR-related items.

A second implementation involved grant reporting. Sprague surveyed end-users and determined that reporting grants fundraising was a complex and confusing process. He worked with the grants department on an application that could quickly and easily report grant proposals, income, and deliverables so the organization could better keep track of fundraising work and communicate with donors.

Why Citizen Development?

“My job is to motivate and inspire people and give them the right tools to do their jobs,” said Sprague. “The fact that 68 percent of all IT projects fail underscores the need for bottom-up system creation.”

Bottom-up system creation can be explained by breaking down the term “citizen development.” Citizens are recognized and have rights and responsibilities. Development can be a process of growth, creativity, and suffering. Citizen developers are permitted to create something meaningful and productive, but the journey often isn’t easy. Sprague’s best practices for encouraging them are as follows:

Empower Everyone at Whatever Level is Right for Them

Sprague noted the different types of people within an organization. You have system-minded people who need permission to act, people who have permission but might not understand the best path forward, admins or people with extra time on their hands, and end users. The needs of these groups vary.

“Some people have good ideas but not the time or the skills to follow through on them: you need to empower them to share their ideas,” Sprague said. “On the other hand, some people have good ideas and could follow through on them if they just had the skills: you need to empower them by building those skills. Some people have good ideas and the skills to implement but need to be allowed to move forward: you need to empower them by giving permission, space, and tools.” Sprague suggested looking for intersections within these groups and understanding where to find particular individuals.

Know Your Company Culture

Each organization is unique and you will face challenges and opportunities specific to your company. Knowing your company culture, you can be prepared for obstacles and the best way to collaborate with people who will dive right into the citizen development process. So ask yourself: Is your culture collaborative? Is it top-down? Does it foster independence and creative control? Are your plans likely to take hold easily or involve an uphill battle?

Test Different Methods

From formalized training offerings to informal water cooler conversations, try different approaches and see what works best for your organization. This should not be trial and error. Rather, test many ideas simultaneously. One of Sprague’s more successful initiatives was a series of webinars open to everyone and attended by a wide mix of employees from entry-level staff to executive directors. In his trainings, he aims to teach employees the basic skills of database development even if they don’t have a system or tool with which they’re already working.

Sprague also does informal trainings around the edges, traveling to various offices and doing a weekly call with group administrators to talk through their pain points and user adoption issues. He makes a point to sit down with end-users as they’re doing their work so he can identify improvement opportunities. When he’s working on an upgrade, he brings his best and worst users into the planning process to help determine when something is not intuitive.

Once a year, Work for Progress does a large qualitative and quantitative survey assessing the effectiveness of its key applications, and also devotes a section of the company Intranet to app dev FAQs, how-tos, and a system proposal form. Because 10-20 percent of employees are allowed to create their own applications, a vibrant community in which questions are asked and answered regularly is essential.

Finally, evangelizing is a critical step. Sprague said that he talks about citizen development all the time via the Intranet, office announcements, and an ongoing review of the organization’s digital transformation plan. “Communication is important for getting people to understand what’s possible and for giving them the skills to follow through on their own ideas,” he said.