If you’re wondering whether low-code can speed up your digital transformation, the answers to three questions can point you in the right direction.

With every Tom, Dick, and Henrietta in the software world promising to speed up your digital transformation, your skepticism is deserved. However, if you’re reading this blog, the chances are you still have an open mind, and you’re wondering whether there’s anything of substance to the claims being made on behalf of low-code vendors.

The Low-code Development Landscape

The low-code application development market has been variously described as fractured, fertile, and fast evolving. Indeed, 76 different vendors were featured in Forrester’s vendor landscape report published in mid-2017. So, deciding which of these low-code platforms to investigate is not a trivial task.

It also probably feels like a moving target, as it seems each month new vendors enter the market, and old vendors of BPM Suites and 4th Generation Languages join the fray, as they decide “low-code” is a more enticing moniker to spice up their marketing.

But a close look at the list of vendors ultimately reveals three different categories for low-code:

  • Tools for mobile development only
  • Tools for business unit (or “citizen”) developers
  • Platforms for application development and delivery (AD&D) pros

So, which of these is best suited to support your quest for digital transformation? And, do you need one, two, or all three as part of your portfolio mix?

To answer that, let’s first define the term digital transformation. Of course, there are abundant alternative definitions, but this is the one I prefer:

Digital transformation: The continual creation and improvement of new business models and customer propositions enabled via digital technology innovation.

There are two things that I’d like to emphasize in this definition.

  • The nature of transformative change. It implies that you’re doing something new and significant. Hence the mention of new business models and customer propositions. I’m not overly enamored with the term “propositions,” but it does cover both products and services, which makes this definition relevant whatever industry you are in.
  • Continual creation and improvement. Transformation is not a build, deploy, and forget exercise. It demands continuing efforts to experiment, learn, and adapt to ensure customer needs and preferences are met. That’s the only way your business will remain competitive.

Now, returning to our question: Which flavor of low-code platform best suits digital transformation?

I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that the answer becomes obvious when you ask yourself the following three questions about your organization’s transformation agenda.

Question 1: Is Our Digital Agenda Solely About Mobile Innovation?

No. Although mobile is important, the full scope of digital transformation will include web, mobile, front-end, back-end, and everything in between.

In today’s always-on world, there’s no sense in having a low-code platform that cannot address the full spectrum of development. Digital transformation calls for agility and flexibility, so you need a low-code platform that is equally capable of creating web and mobile apps with a single skill set.

Question 2: How Do We Best Harness the Abilities and Enthusiasm of Business Expert Users?

Isolated pockets of citizen development will not significantly help digital transformation.

Digital transformation entails customer-facing apps, integration to systems of record, and continuous iterative innovation. There’s no doubt that agile innovation requires user engagement and customer-centric development. But, achieving that at scale over the long term does not come about by IT “letting go of the reins.”

Although there’s a place for lightweight “no-code” and workflow tools to address dysfunctional departmental processes built on spreadsheets and email, that’s not digital transformation as defined above.

For more on this topic read my article “Who’s Left Holding the Reins?” in the Outsystems blog.

Question 3: Does Digital Transformation Need Governance, Scale, and Security?

Yes. Governance, scale, and security are required for the long term.

Digital transformation is a widespread, long-term effort. It is not about a few apps that seldom change. Governance is key, including support for multiple developers, projects, and continuous delivery.

Digital transformation means systems of engagement that are used directly by customers and business partners. The ability to architect secure web and mobile applications that scale for thousands or perhaps millions of users should be important.

To deliver joined-up, efficient processes, these systems of engagement must integrate with your systems of record. So, if you’re evaluating low-code platforms, you’ll want to drill-down on these capabilities to ensure the platform you select provides limitless support for integration and is flexible, robust and reusable. Make sure you avoid a piecemeal approach that buries integration code in application code and customization that results in vendor lock-in and legacy debt.

The criteria just mentioned are not the strong suits of no-code, lightweight tools.

The Answer Is Clear

If your answers are at all similar those I’ve listed here, you’ll have concluded that only low-code platforms for AD&D professionals are likely to be suited to support your digital transformation agenda.

However, tools alone are not the complete answer. Frankly, I’ve been rather disappointed by the level of advice offered by low-code industry commentators in the past. Most marketers, journalists, and analysts don’t dig into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to turn software into a scalable, sustainable success. Instead, the advice on offer has pretty much equated to:

A benign virus

“Start small, achieve a success, and as if by magic low-code will spread like a benign virus throughout your organization.”

The reality is, unless IT is in the game from the start, that rarely happens. Having worked for several years in the BPM and “citizen-end” of the low-code market (before joining OutSystems), I’ve seen countless business-led, “one-hit-wonders.” Yes, a solution was delivered, but it spread no further than the remit of that first stakeholder.

The reason for that is the simple truth: Most often, people do what they’re paid for.

A head of a department can be the most passionate advocate when their reputation is at stake. If they’ve gone out on a limb and licensed a low-code or no-code tool because of a six-to-nine-month IT queue, you can bet they’ll be pushing the project over the line all the way.

But, once the problem is solved (often delivered as a professional services gig by the vendor), the fire is put out, the ardor soon cools. (Sorry for mixing my metaphors.)

So, the Customer Services Director goes back to directing customer service. They have no interest in building a center of excellence for low-code development that can be shared across all departments. That’s not in their objectives, and not in their compensation plan.

The risk for businesses is that this kind of story repeats itself in multiple departments. Each potentially adopting their own low-code or no-code tool, and at no stage achieving a critical mass for sustainability.

This is a massive waste:

  • Repeated learning, but no sharing of lessons learned
  • Different software or software instances, but no economy of scale
  • Multiple vendors, and perhaps captive to them all

Scaling Low-code Adoption from First App to Center of Excellence and Beyond

Having said marketers don’t often get into the nitty-gritty, I’m rather proud to say our product management and customer success teams have gotten together to prove me wrong.

They’ve just distilled over twelve years of experience making low-code a sustainable success for hundreds of customers into methodology called the low-code digital factory. And you can read all about it in this playbook.