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Can Citizen Developers Fix Information Management?

November 04, 2021 Information Management
Jed Cawthorne
By Jed Cawthorne

Information management within organizations is in a bad state. Or so says many of the respondents to the Association of Intelligent Information Management (AIIM) State of the Intelligent Information Management Industry 2021 (log in required) report. I've been a member of AIIM for over 20 years (if you include my “student” membership in the late '90s) and recently joined a Certified Information Professionals panel to discuss the findings of the report.

Some say no-code/low-code development might point the way out of the information management mess, but let's first dive into the report.

What's Leading to the Sorry State of Information Management?

In some respects, the survey results where overwhelmingly damning. A combination of historical issues and other factors led to the report's conclusions. For example, the volume of information being handled by the average business keeps increasing at a rapid pace, with surveyed members expecting a 57% year-on-year increase in unstructured information. Some of the conclusions suggested in the report include:

  • The C-Suite is unable to fully align business and technology strategies.
  • Organizations are drowning in the volume of information being generated.
  • Organizations need to increase investment in critical information management competencies.
  • Technology is not the problem. Strategic focus, finding the budget and dealing with culture change are major issues.

To a cynic like me, who thinks most CIOs are more heads of technology than chiefs of information, a lot of this was depressingly familiar. At some level boards of directors and C-suite execs understand that information is incredibly valuable, indeed the lifeblood of some businesses. And yet, generally speaking, we seem to do a bad job of managing it?

Related Article: Stop Complicating Information Management

The Big Information Management Challenge

Many respondents suggest no one in their organization has assumed responsibility of information management at an enterprise level. The CIO hasn't, nor has anyone else, and so it is devolved down to business units. The business unit level may have problems building a rationale for information management professionals and systems when it is not seen as core to the business being undertaken. The responses to the "what is your biggest challenge" question reflect this state:

  • Rising customer expectations for information access and use.
  • Being able to analyze the every increasing amounts of information to release value.
  • Long-term preservation of information to generate business value.
  • Information security threats and privacy challenges.
  • Aligning IT capabilities to the speed of the business.

All of these items seem reasonable, some of them encapsulate tough technological or process challenges as they cross organizational boundaries, and yet the two biggest challenges reported by far were:

  • Managing information through its lifecycle.
  • Digitizing, automating and integrating processes.

These surprise me. We've been talking about and developing ways to deal with these problems for the 20 years I have been in the industry. The technology to fix these problems has been around for decades — whether you want to talk about enterprise content management (ECM) or content services providers (CSP) — and obviously is continuing to improve. As a longtime AIIM member who now works for a Gartner MQ listed cloud-based CSP, it boggles my mind boggles that managing information through it’s lifecycle remains one of the biggest problems!

Related Article: Why You Must Keep an Eye on Your Content Services

Citizen Developers to the Rescue?

Early last week I attended a number of sessions at Gartner's IT Symposium, a forum for CIOs and senior IT execs. A big takeaway from multiple sessions on different, but related topics came down to this: the CIO who is going to make their organization successful will use a number of strategies, an essential one being the use of no-code application development by business users. 

Gartner defines no-code as a marketing term used to describe tools that people who are not professional developers can use to create software. Not being a professional developer doesn't mean you have no education or experience in coding or in developing business logic (business process rules). For various reasons we won't go into here, Gartner believes CIOs will continue to struggle to find and retain high class developer talent, and that they are a limited resource. So if you can tap the clever people inside business units to develop their own systems using no-code, drag and drop development, based on their intimate knowledge of their business processes, then it’s a win-win for the CIO and the business unit. The CIO can stop stressing about empty seats on the dev teams, and the business unit no longer has to wait months or years for IT.

Related Article: Power Apps Issues Remind Us of the Need for Low-Code/No-Code Governance

Everyone Wins With Low-Code! Or Do They?

From an information management perspective it seems this could go two ways: good or not so good.

Let's look at the not so good outcome first. Pushing dev down to talented business specialists means that can respond to business needs and changes in their operating environment in a much more agile fashion, which is good. However, do those business people who can write logic to encapsulate their process flows have a really good understanding of the information flows? You might think the two are the same thing, but I would argue they are not.

A business subject matter expert (SME) focused on enhancing the efficiency of a front-end business process may know little or nothing of the records management, long-term preservation, or privacy and subject access request requirements for the information they are working with within their system. That may or may not be a problem. If the enterprise provides the business unit no-code teams the correct repositories and backend systems for the tools they create, plus an Information Management Center of Excellence to answer their questions and help them, we could be in a good place. However if everything is left to the business unit and their small IM or information governance team (if they exist), and if budgets are not organized appropriately, a push toward business unit no-code app development could actually exacerbate information management issues.

On the other hand, if the CIO can organize and direct the finance, structures, strategies and policies to fully enable digital transformation of business units via no-code app dev teams, then they could radically improve the information management situation.

If the push into the business unit includes education on overall information literacy, as well as the specialist training to make the most from the preferred no-code tools and environments, we might get to the point where overall sum of the advantages is greater than each individual improvement. Depending on the size of the organization, its structures, culture and industry, this could take the form of centralized “helper units” organized as Centers of Excellence for information management and/or information governance, no-code dev practices, analytics, RPA and AI. The CIO can then apply their scarce specialist resources to generate the greatest benefit from them. Or if everything is devolved down to the business unit, the CIO’s team can generate standards structures for generating and staffing a multidisciplinary team in each business unit, ensuring good practices for the use of no-code tools are in place, and again generating a positive local impact on the information management issues.

What Comes Next?

So where does that leave us? According to AIIM members, the state of the information management industry isn't great. The AIIM conference in Denver next spring will build from the report and focus on what AIIM thinks we can and should be doing about that.

Meanwhile, Gartner is suggesting CIOs will never have enough specialist developers to fully enable the benefits of digital transformation, and should partner with business leaders to take advantage of citizen developers in business units using no-code tools to fill the gap.

My hope is the latter approach takes information management as a discipline into account, and that information management professionals can help their business SMEs become excellent vectors for change and digital transformation — the win-win we are all looking for.

About the Author

Jed Cawthorne is Director, Security & Governance Solutions at NetDocuments. He is involved in product management and working with customers to make NetDocuments phenomenally successful products even more so.

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