When to Use a Low-Code Tool

Many, if not most, of the IT problems we experience in today’s workplace can be solved without writing a single line of code.

But in my experience, organizations struggle to determine which problems can be solved with low-code or no-code tools, and which ones require heavy lifting from developers. Worse yet, organizations frequently encounter internal resistance to the use of low-code solutions, further complicating the efforts of line of business employees who need to quickly solve problems through the use of technology.

At a time when organizations are deciding where and how to use valuable developer manpower, IT leaders and developer teams need to develop a strategy for determining when low-code and no-code tools are appropriate for streamlining projects and multiplying the effective use of technology across their organizations.

Low-code tools drive digital transformation

Low-code and no-code technology can be the driving force in digital transformation. Although these tools may not seem as impressive as a solution or platform built from the ground up by in-house developers, digital transformation often happens through incremental improvements, not giant leaps.

Here’s what I mean: Faced with the realities of a competitive industry environment, CIOs, CEOs and other leaders hear that digital transformation or disruption can create advantage in a crowded marketplace. So, they embark on a sweeping technology initiative only to discover that the end product doesn’t live up to their expectations, especially when they factor in the amount of time and resources it took to get there.

The simple truth is that in many businesses, digital transformation doesn’t occur through a massive, one-time change. Instead, it’s the result of smart people across the organization constantly asking how processes and systems can become more effective and efficient. Transformation boils down to the combined efforts of LOB (line-of-business) employees setting aside the way-we’ve-always-done-it mentality and exploring how technology can achieve incremental improvement.

Consider my friend, who is a landscaper, as a case in point. He lives and works in a resort town where most of his competitors continue to follow the same practices they have relied on for years, even though the majority of their customers don’t live in the town year-round. His competitors schedule appointments by phone, they aren’t transparent about service times or project updates, and they send bills by mail.

Recognizing an opportunity, my friend leveraged technology to differentiate his business. With the help of no-code tools, he developed a website that lets customers schedule appointments online, receive status updates and pay with a credit card — whether they’re in town for a visit or hundreds of miles away at their primary residences.

In a majority of organizations, that’s what digital transformation looks like — small improvements that transform the organization’s processes and business outlook. And when lines of business are empowered to pursue low-code and no-code solutions, the benefits increase exponentially.

It’s time to deconstruct the stigma around low-code tools

In too many organizations, low-code applications suffer from a bias that holds back the deployment of technologies that are accessible to LOB employees. Some developers cling to the purity of coded solutions. But more often the case is that open-minded developers and IT leaders have been burned by various low-code platforms in the past, and are now hesitant to set non-IT employees loose to implement department-specific solutions with minimal or no oversight.

Additionally, most IT leaders have experienced the panic that occurs when an employee who owns a core LOB application or created a complex, department-specific Excel spreadsheet leaves the company. Often, the exiting employee was the only person who understood the tool’s value to the organization and didn’t document it or integrate it into a formal project framework.

Although these are valid concerns, code exists to improve lives and change the way we work for the better. When we automatically discount the legitimacy of low-code and no-code tools, we short-change both the organization and our fellow employees because we limit the ability of technology to transform the organization and improve life in the workplace.

Truth be told, low-code solutions have come a long way in recent years. The best low-code solutions involve platforms with core elements that are extensible to developers, giving them the ability to address problems with a bit of code and insulating the organization from unnecessary risk.

Similarly, the way organizations use low-code and no-code tools is changing. Instead of leaving LOBs hanging in the wind, CIOs and IT leaders retain a certain amount of control over the use of low-code tools to ensure that non-IT employees have the right skills for the project and document the process to maintain continuity.

Essentially, the right low-code and no-code technology changes the conversation from, “Should we allow the use of these kinds of tools?” to, “How can we leverage these tools to benefit LOBs and improve business outcomes, while protecting the integrity and continuity of the organization’s IT ecosystem?”

Determine when low-code is the right tool for the job

Low-code tools are appropriate for a wide range of applications in any organization. It really boils down to the needs of LOB employees as well as the needs of the IT department. In certain instances, low-code and no-code tools can even play a role in helping CIOs and IT leaders increase the quality and efficiency of high-priority projects.

But while the decision to use low-code technology should be contextualized to each organization’s unique needs and circumstances, there are at least two common scenarios that make a lot of sense for using low-code tools on a regular basis.

1. Low-code tools are ideal for reducing project backlogs.

Most CIOs have dozens, if not hundreds, of projects in their backlogs. In fact, many of the CIOs I know keep a backlog with an imaginary, horizontal line. The projects above the line have priority, but due to time constraints, the projects below the line will never get done. These projects — the ones that live below the line — are perfect candidates for low-code or no-code solutions.

Low-code technology transfers ownership of below-the-line projects to individual departments, freeing up time for developers to focus on the projects that live in the stratosphere, well above the line. But to avoid complications, ownership of these projects requires the same discipline that exists in IT, cascaded to LOBs.

In other words, the use of low-code tools to relieve project backlogs demands that LOB employees follow the same processes, methodologies and practices that would occur if the IT business executed the project. This level of discipline mitigates the risks associated with non-IT involvement and protects the organization from the unintended consequences of a misguided deployment.

Centers of Excellence (CoEs) reduce the risk to the business. A CoE is a community or practice for each platform in the organization. Typically, the CoE includes a point person who understands how the tool is being used in the department, helps address problems and takes a degree of ownership over its use. Most companies that successfully use low-code and no-code tools create CoEs because without them it’s impossible to monitor, control and improve the technologies at play in the organization.

2. Low-code tools improve efficiency for IT teams.

Not all high-priority, above-the-line projects require completely original code. In fact, an over-reliance on full code can result in project delays and other complications because original code requires time to test and additional maintenance over time.

When I was in college, collaboration was considered cheating and developers were penalized for working on code as a group. Even in the business world, leveraging someone else’s code used to be heresy — you didn’t write it, so it was risky because you couldn’t see inside. But open source changed everything. Now, developers can see into other people’s code and understand the problems they encountered.

Low-code technology enables developers to access other people’s code with limited risk, knowing that the code has been tested and maintained. Full code is still necessary for core technology that gives the organization a competitive edge. But for other projects, CIOs need to ask whether parts of the project are already available in a low-code solution. If so, that code can be used to increase project efficiency.

The use of low-code and no-code tools presents a viable strategy for most organizations because it multiplies the productivity and efficiency of in-house developers. But like any technology strategy, it needs to be executed in the right way, with policies and processes that reduce the risk to the organization.

Mistakes are inevitable, and occasionally LOB employees will find themselves wading in water over their heads. When that happens, CIOs and IT leaders need to focus on improving performance. If you’re in the 70 – 80 percent success range, you’re doing well — and you can do even better over time.   

is chief evangelist at Nintex. Ryan has 20-plus years of global IT experience and is responsible for defining Nintex's product strategy to help people solve business process problems. Ryan holds degrees in computer science and psychology from Victoria University of Wellington.