Low-Code vs No-Code: Choosing the Right Process Automation Platform

Michael Eisner June 7, 2021 Low-Code

no-code

The rapid adoption of digital technologies continues to reshape industry after industry. The age of digital transformation was well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic came along and fundamentally changed the ways that the world works. However, according to a recent McKinsey survey, responses to COVID-19 have accelerated the adoption of digital technologies by several years.

A shortage of professional developers and overburdened IT departments have contributed to the rise of “citizen developers” – non-technical users that leverage innovative and user-friendly platforms to create applications and automate processes. When it comes to choosing a process automation platform, organizations have a choice between no-code and low-code.

At first glance, the distinction between no-code and low-code is not altogether clear. Marketers often use the terms interchangeably, and commonly tout new features that blur the line between the two technologies. General market confusion aside, there are very real and significant differences between no-code and low-code platforms.

At a conceptual level, the differences largely boil down to how the technologies are used, what they are used for, and who uses them. Choosing the right process automation platform involves understanding these distinctions, defining your objectives, determining the role that citizen developers will play in advancing digital transformation initiatives, and implementing an effective governance strategy to ensure success.

No-code and Low-code: A brief history

While no-code and low-code platforms have proliferated in recent years, their roots can be traced back to at least 1982. That was the year that author James Martin published his book called Application Development Without Programmers. In his book, Martin wrote that, “The number of programmers available per computer is shrinking so fast that most computers in the future must be put to work at least in part without programmers.”

According to Martin, certain end users were capable of creating their own applications using fourth-generation programming languages (4GL). Yet 4GLs were not up to the task for several reasons. First, they did not support common development best practices. Second, 4GL technologies offered limited numbers of libraries. Developers use libraries to perform simple tasks like reading XML documents. Third, applications created by non-technical users created security and governance concerns. Finally, 4GL technologies did not scale well since it was difficult to implement changes.

So, while Martin’s premonition proved true, the timing with respect to the technology required to enable non-technical users to create apps was off. Several decades of technological innovation led to the emergence of solutions that overcame 4GLs limitations – no-code and low-code platforms.

No-code vs. Low-code Platforms

Low Code vs No Code

Both no-code and low-code platforms offer innovative and user-friendly tools that empower citizen developers to advance process automation within an organization. Choosing the right platform for your organization is a function of what you hope to accomplish and who will be responsible for doing the work.

No-code platforms are ideal for developing simple applications. Their end use is typically confined to the individual or workgroup level. For example, a freelancer that seeks to build a submission form on his or her website could utilize a no-code tool. Likewise, a small business that lacks the resources for inhouse IT oversight and requires simple customer-facing applications could benefit from a no-code platform.

Low-code platforms are suitable for organizations that need to create more complex applications or processes. These organizations have designated IT professionals that can oversee citizen development initiatives. Moreover, professional developers leverage low-code platforms to eliminate time-consuming and repetitive manual coding tasks, allowing them to focus on the higher value aspects of programming.

By leveraging a low-code platform, organizations can scale and advance their digital transformation initiatives. 

No-code platforms

No-code platforms are intended for business users. They help non-technical users to replace elementary business cases or manual processes that do not require integration with 3rd party systems. No-code tools are therefore ideal for users that need a simple app to solve a single business case without having to wait several months or longer for IT departments to develop it.

When it comes to traditional software development platforms, “code” is the set of instructions that tells the platform how to perform an action. With a no-code platform, however, the user specifies what the application does, eliminating the need for the user to define how.  Most no-code platforms operate on a closed system. This means that users are unable to input custom code to change how the platform works.

No-code platforms typically rely on a preset user interface. This layer simplifies and streamlines the design process through easy-to-use visual elements. For example, drag-and-drop functionality that allows users to create feature-rich user interfaces by dragging and arranging elements of existing code without the need or ability to manually input custom code.

Low-code platforms

Low-code platforms are tools that allow both users with limited programming experience and professional developers to build applications quicker and easier. Unlike no-code platforms, with low-code tools users can add custom code making it applicable to more use-cases as well as easily integrate applications with third-party solutions.

Similar to no-code tools, low-code platforms provide a visual integrated development environment making it easy to create apps. With low-code platforms, however, developers can create and implement custom code to deploy features that are not readily available. This functionality makes low-code platforms more suitable for complex business processes, particularly those that require integration with other applications or systems.

Forrester Research coined the term “low-code” in 2014 and defined it as:

“Low-code platforms employ visual, declarative techniques instead of traditional lines of programming. Both developers and non-developers can use these products, and they require less training to start. Common features include reusable components, drag-and-drop tools, and process modeling. Individuals or small teams can experiment, prototype, and deliver apps in days or weeks.”

According to Forrester, low-code platforms have the potential to make the software development process up to 10x faster than traditional development methods. More than that, low-code platforms play an integral role in advancing an organizations’ digitalization initiatives in several ways:

  • Decreasing the time needed to meet business requirements. Faster development allows teams to focus more on design.
  • Reigning in shadow IT. Shadow IT – projects that are managed without the oversight of an organization’s IT department – can result in damaging IT activities. A low-code platform combined with effective governance strategy, however, eliminates shadow IT concerns.
  • Automating operational processes. A low-code platform with business process management (BPM) capabilities makes it easy to automate tasks across an entire organization.

The Rise of the “Citizen Developer”

“A citizen developer is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.” Gartner

As organizations accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, IT departments are struggling to keep up with increased demand for new applications. IDC estimates that more than 500 million apps will be developed by 2023. To overcome the IT skills gap, organizations are turning to citizen developers to deliver applications quicker using less resources.

According to a Gartner survey on citizen development, 41% of respondents indicated that they have active citizen development initiatives. Another 20% of those that don’t are in the process of evaluating or plan to start citizen development initiatives. Moreover, in a Gartner survey on business unit IT 46% of respondents reported that an increase for business-led IT spend was due to increased development of software, applications, or databases.

With the proliferation of no-code and low-code platforms, anyone can be a developer. Gartner forecasts that the number of active citizen developers at large enterprises will be at least 4x that of professional developers by 2023. The rapid growth of citizen developers combined with the availability of innovative no-code and low-code platforms offers organizations enormous cost benefits.

First, citizen developers that wear several hats within an organization are far more cost-effective than expensive professional developers. Second, implementing no-code and low-code tools helps organizations to scale their digital transformation initiatives, which is vital to maintaining a competitive edge in the new economy.

Third, low-code and no-code platforms foster greater collaboration within an organization. User-friendly and flexible development tools help business users and IT departments to collaborate and build new applications together. Fourth, including citizen developers in the development process contributes to the alignment of business objectives with IT systems. Finally, no-code and low-code platforms accelerate the development process, increasing productivity and allowing IT teams to spend time on higher value tasks.

The Need to Govern

With an increased reliance on citizen developers, it is crucial for organizations to implement a system of governance that features IT oversight. A survey conducted within the last few years by Gartner, Citizen Development is Happening and IT Needs to be More Engaged, found that:

  • Just 16% of respondents reported that IT was fully involved with citizen development.
  • 36% of organizations reported that IT primarily provided back-end support for development by business users.
  • IT oversight and governance of citizen development initiatives are severely lacking, and governance is needed.

A system of citizen developer governance is required to prevent damaging IT activities. Damaging activities come in different forms. Security and compliance issues are among the most significant. For example, a citizen developer may decide to use an open-source library contrary to internal rules. This could allow sensitive data to be accessed by unauthorized third parties.

Data loss is another common risk. Systems and applications that are implemented without oversight are not part of the backup and restore strategy of the IT department. An incident could cause critical data to be lost. Actions by citizen developers can also result in inefficiencies. A solution designed to improve an individual process could negatively impact related processes. Only IT teams have the ability to monitor system performance across the entire organization.

A Framework for an Effective Governance Strategy

An effective citizen development governance strategy should incorporate a framework similar to the following.

Step 1: Outline your strategy

Start by writing down your objectives. What do you want to achieve with citizen developers? Defining your objectives also helps educate key stakeholders on the importance of citizen development initiatives to increase buy in across the organization. Once you define your objectives, Forrester advises answering the following questions to form the basis of your governance strategy.

  • Who are the citizen developers? Identify your citizen developers and make sure they understand what is expected of them and give them the tools they need to succeed.
  • Where will they operate? Organizations typically start small before implementing citizen development throughout the entire organization.
  • How will apps be developed? All apps should be created on a single unified platform and according to existing workflows to ensure efficiency.
  • When will the apps be delivered? Determine how citizen developers will prioritize which apps are built and how they will allocate their time between development and other roles within the organization.
  • What types of apps will they build? Organizations typically delegate work based on predefined parameters, such as class or end use.

Step 2: Create a governance team

Organizations should designate multidisciplinary teams that work closely with IT. The governance team is responsible for maintaining citizen development policies, providing resources, managing the platforms that citizen developers use, and keeping key stakeholders informed regarding the status of the program.

Step 3: Provide tools and support

The proper tools are critical to effective governance. No code and low-code platforms provide a managed environment that mitigates the risk of harmful IT activities. Citizen developers need to know where to go to get technical support.

Step 4: Train citizen developers

Citizen developers must learn basic concepts and how to use the platform. Organizations should require that citizen developers pass an assessment before they are granted access to the system. Ongoing training should provide citizen developers with opportunities to learn new skills.

Step 5: Address security risks

Effective governance combined with the use of a low-code platform can mitigate security risks. Procedures must be put in place to ensure that all citizen developer activity is logged, monitored, and subject to quality control standards.

Creating and implementing a governance strategy is a complex but necessary component of a successful citizen development program. Much like integrating any new policy, expect some growing pains and be prepared to revise and improve your strategy as circumstances dictate.

 Summary

An insatiable demand for digital technologies has overburdened IT teams and contributed to the rise of citizen developers. Business users leverage no-code platforms to build simple applications. Low-code platforms offer both business users operating under the supervision of IT professionals and developers the ability to build complex applications, automate entire business processes, and advance digital transformation throughout the organization.

About ProcessMaker

ProcessMaker is a low-code BPM and workflow software. ProcessMaker makes it easy for both business users and professional developers to automate complex business processes. Headquartered in Durham, North Carolina in the United States, ProcessMaker has a partner network spread across 35 countries on five continents. Hundreds of commercial customers, including many Fortune 100 companies, rely on ProcessMaker to digitally transform their core business processes enabling faster decision making, improved compliance, and better performance.

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