RPA - Should You Allow Citizen Developers?
I recently recorded a video discussion with the Robotic Process Automation (RPA) team at IBA Group and the industry analyst Peter Ryan. Our focus was RPA and how it can be applied to help companies reduce repetitive tasks.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was the contrast between professional or citizen developers. I believe that many people exploring an RPA solution are doing so because they want to create a more agile process within their organization. This requires flexibility and the ability to change – therefore it makes sense for the team using the system to learn some basic coding and develop the ability to change and modify the automated processes.
However, as the IBA team noted, this also means that you can introduce errors. It’s like earlier in my own career when I was coding. We had source code control systems, but they were extremely basic. It was fairly easy for one developer to make changes that impacted another member of the team.
This creates a dilemma. If you install an RPA system that can never be changed then there is no flexibility to modify the system, but if you allow the users to make changes then there is a risk that errors will be introduced. At the very least changes might be made and undocumented making it harder to support the system in the future.
This is a similar problem to that faced by spreadsheet users. How many companies have a spreadsheet that holds everything together and only one person who understands the code? I’ve seen it many times in different organizations I have worked with. I once worked for an investment bank that reported their trading activity each day using an Excel sheet that only one person understood. When he was on vacation we just had to hope the sheet worked.
Clearly, this is not acceptable and the IBA arguments about citizen developers are designed to avoid the same mistakes being repeated.
I believe that professionals are going to need some coding skills though. If it is possible to set up a mirrored system environment then there can be a testbed available for trials and experimentation. The production system is tested and locked, so it can’t easily be changed, but a matching test system can offer the end-users the opportunity to try their coding skills.
This is a question of digital literacy. What is a normal level of digital literacy today? Nobody really questions the basics any longer. I can remember people adding skills such as Word and Excel to their CV. Now it’s just accepted as normal that most people understand how to use basic business tools, email, and social media.
Will RPA be next?
I suspect that this is likely. As companies across all industries find that individual employees can be far more productive if they use RPA to remove repetitive tasks it will become common for companies to specify during the hiring process that they give priority to people that already understand some basic coding and automation processing.
It means that lawyers, doctors, and accountants will all need some basic coding skills. Citizen developers will become an important way that companies can increase productivity, but as the IBA team warned, source code must be controlled. We can’t stumble into a situation where processes can be changed by anyone at any time.