A lot of attention is being paid to citizen integrators at the moment in the world of iPaaS. You could be forgiven for thinking that they have become the lynch pins of business integration strategy. Citizen integrators are indeed important bridges in many companies‘ integration strategies. However, this role is really much more nuanced.
The Hype around Citizen Integrators
In some parts of the trade press and sales and marketing literature, citizen integrators seem to have been placed on a pedestal. Nowadays, they are being touted as key users who take the helm in any IT integration task, and more or less replace the IT department.
Citizen integrators are generally employees with existing roles in the company, who do not have an IT background. They may be managers, data analysts, or simply front-line staff in an organisation. Their brief is to quickly and easily solve data-based issues for their everyday work by ensuring that front and back end applications and processes are appropriately integrated. Citizen integrators are portrayed as innovative employees. Instead of waiting for someone from an often understaffed and overworked IT department to make a pressing change needed to integrate processes, they delve in themselves and essentially fulfill the job description of a key user.
The integration technology readily available these days makes this scenario possible: a lot of integration work can be done by drag and drop. IT systems and software can be configured and processes integrated quickly and fuss-free by the users themselves. Companies who employ citizen integrators anticipate higher innovation, quicker time-to-market speeds and significant cost savings. The latter by eradicating the need for expensive IT experts.
Too much is being expected of citizen integrators
Although there may well be employees who actually fit the above scenario, in most cases, the expectations placed on citizen integrators are too high. There are many reasons for this.
Firstly, while two or more applications can be quickly connected by drap and drop, usually there’s actually more involved. Even if technically everything seems to be working fine, you still need to consider the implications for data security and data protection. And for that, you need a fundamental understanding of the processes involved in IT operations and software development.
Secondly, most citizen integrators are based in a specific department and will naturally be most invested in finding an immediate solution for the issues faced in their own area. Often, there isn’t an understanding of the company’s overall IT strategy and how their newly-created solutions could or should fit to this. This could lead to integration paths which are unnecessary or even contraproductiove to the company as a whole.
Because citizen integrators may be focussing on the issues affecting their own department, they may miss strategic opportunities which could give the company as a whole a competitive advantage.
This could lead to a further danger: while to all intents and purposes the company appears to be highly innovative, in reality it may be actually losing its competitive advantage.
Thirdly, experience has shown that easy access to technology often leads to this technology being treated somewhat recklessly. Staff often don’t think hard enough before they act: many projects fail due to a lack of planning or are not followed through. Over time, this can lead to quite a herd of white elephants.
In order to regain control, either the in-house IT department needs to come to the rescue or expensive consultants need to be called in. Furthermore, easy, cheap access to technology can give the false impression that technology automatically improves ineffective processes. Urgently needed changes and process remodelling are actually delayed by short-sighted technical solutions.
Fourthly, by no means can every integration issue be easily solved in-house. At the latest, once you need to transfer large quantities of data, or merge data from a number of sources, you will need to call in the experts. The data volume which companies are already dealing with these days is very high and the number of applications being used is – thanks to the popularity of SaaS –growing. This means that integrative solutions are increasingly automatically highly technical.
Fifthly, in recent years, many companies have outsourced whole sectors to external providers. This means that they no longer have access to some of the data they would require for seamless, continual application and process integration.
An example for this could be the (technical) support for in-house technology. The data collected by customer services is often an important source to drive process optimisation and innovation in sales, marketing and production. However, as this data is being held by an external providor, staff often have little or no access to it. This obstacle undermines a key assumption behind the role of a citizen integrator; that the data required for a task is readily available.
Sixthly, more and more employees are currently working from home. Although this can have certain advantages (and in the current health pandemic at the time of writing is often unavoidable), it’s not equally suited to all business tasks. For tasks requiring a high degree of coordination, communication and discussion, it could actually be disadvantageous, and significantly reduce the scope of what a citizen integrator can do. In many companies, either because of their specific processes or their culture, a lot of communication is informal, e.g. in water cooler moments. In these cases, staff working from home can severly negatively impinge on a citizen integrator’s work.
It becomes difficult for employees wishing to implement an integrative solution to informally check beforehand how this will go down with their colleagues. The reduced flow of information means the citizen integrator is less likely to discover in time that someone else in the company is already working on exactly this issue, or at least something similar. Or, that the integrative changes they wish to implement will soon become redundant due to a change in business processes or strategy.
Seventhly, many opinions on the growing role taken by a citizen integrator neglect to consider that the IT sector is growing in complexity. Both the amount and the complexity of data is rapidly increasing. This is leading to new technologies, processes, business areas and new legal requirements. This serves to only make software and IT processes even more numerous and complex.
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