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This content was paid for by ServiceNow and produced in partnership with the Financial Times Commercial department.

This is for everyone: low-code and the new wave of digital transformation

How low-code platforms help businesses build powerful applications without professional coders

Anyone who’s ever run a business knows that there’s a lot to be said for keeping IT systems something of a closed book. IT as a silo means minimal disruption, maximum security and less hassle when it comes to expecting an entire workforce to change its ways.

But there are also benefits to be had in tapping into the problem-solving creativity of a workforce. Nobody knows a business better than people who work in it. After all, if you want to know how to improve a warehouse order picking system, you don’t ask the marketing team, you ask the pickers. 

And yet, building fast software solutions from the ground up is expensive and labour- and time-consuming. 

We’ve all heard horror stories of systems being brought down by a spreadsheet error. Who could forget 2020’s Microsoft Excel glitch that led to nearly 16,000 Covid-19 cases going unreported? “The reality is that people share documents around a business, and for many corporates there's not always a solid audit trail of who updated, or there are inconsistencies in the data, or nothing in real time,” says Stuart Farquharson, Head of Creator Workflows, UKI for digital workflow software company ServiceNow. “Organisations are making decisions based on immediately out-of-date information.”

As a result, many businesses are turning to low-code development — an environment that allows individuals to build applications without the need for traditional coding skills and without the need to rebuild large legacy systems. Supported by management and IT, so-called citizen developers work to build applications that solve their day-to-day process challenges. 

Research from Gartner[1] suggests that by 2023 more than 50 per cent of medium to large enterprises in the US will have adopted a low-code platform as a strategic application platform, due in part to a shortage of developer talent and expertise. By 2024, it suggests that 75% of large enterprises will be using at least four low-code development tools for both IT application development and citizen development initiatives.

“Most people, when they come into this subject, fear it,” says Farquharson. “You're bringing people into the world of technology who haven't necessarily come from a coding background.” However, if the right platform and right support is in place, low-coding can be a cost-effective and efficient way to work. 

A good low-code platform will have drag-and-drop capabilities, ensuring the system is as easy as possible to use for those who lack coding experience. “Cross-platform capabilities, KPI reporting and monitoring makes it nicer for people to use, along with templates, analytical support and reusability,” says Farquharson. “It’s like a large box of Lego without instructions, so it’s important to have a plan to help start building.”

Of course, not everyone makes a good citizen developer and it would be folly to assume that any employee can do it, or indeed would want to. “People need to have a good idea of a process,” says Farquharson, “and they must also have a desire to learn.”

The pandemic has meant that companies have had to be more agile and this means staff have needed to be more self-sufficient. “There’s nothing like a bit of pressure when you're looking for someone to fix something,” says Farquharson. “But to enable faster innovation, people need to be more independent and free-thinking — and these tools underpin that creativity.”

The pandemic has also forced organisations to move faster than usual. ServiceNow worked with the biomedical research organisation, the Francis Crick Institute, on an application platform to deliver 120,000 Covid-19 tests to its staff from June to September 2020. This meant building the app as quickly as possible.

Similarly, Swiss insurance company, Baloise Group, had to build a fast claims-processing system and a portal for a global pharmaceutical company that would bring every claim together in one place. Using ServiceNow’s Creator Workflows, the development of the system, which might typically take days, was reduced to a matter of hours. A portal can take six to 12 months to build, but this one went live in just three months. 

Creator Workflows was also instrumental in helping a major financial services recruitment business in London process candidates more efficiently. The company had been processing around 100,000 candidates a year, with each candidate taking around five days to process. But a low-code app built using Creator Workflows doubled the number of candidates processed to 200,000 a year and reduced the average processing time from five days to three. 

For low-code to work, a degree of cultural change is necessary, says Farquharson, who notes the need to be “focused on bringing non-technical individuals into a developer world”. This, he says, “comes down to how you partner with all areas of the business, especially IT, and how you define boundaries and when you bring in system developers to help.” 

And, far from taking work away from IT specialists, citizen developers can help remove some of the more mundane tasks and free up skilled developers to work on more complex projects. 

IT is the “fence around the playground”, says Farquharson. “It’s about providing some really smart tools, opening innovation up to more people, but with a safety net.” 

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