Citizen automation describes direct involvement of business users in the development of software robots, in contrast to robot development by professional software engineers with specialized education and training. Democratization of process automation is a major promise of RPA, however opinions are split regarding the extent to which non-technical developers can generate meaningful automation outcomes.

“A robot for every person” – with this slogan UiPath went through an initial public offering earlier this year, valuing the company at over $30bn. The RPA pioneer’s vision is premised on the widespread adoption of RPA by knowledge workers. Low-code development interface, automated process discovery and code creation should empower even non-technical users to take charge of automating their processes.

In contrast, a younger breed of RPA vendors, such as Robocorp and ElectroNeek which both raised investment rounds in the area of $20m earlier this year, are betting on the future where RPA users will rely on professional service providers to automate their processes.

Today, over 60% of the RPA market is made up by services (according to Forrester, a consultancy) as RPA clients commonly require development, consulting, training, support, maintenance and development resources which they do not have in-house.

The incentives for empowering business users to automate are great. Citizen automation enables organizations to tap a vast talent pool beyond the ever-demanded software development community. There is evidence of meaningful positive impact on employee satisfaction and engagement. Direct involvement of process experts lets organizations pick up smaller automation opportunities, moving one step closer to full automation. Finally, being involved in the automation initiatives helps reduce anxiety among employees and facilitates change management.

However, some limitations are also at play. Notably, process fragmentation and the boundaries of interdepartmental communication lead to redundant automation efforts throughout the organization and limit the scalability of robots. There seems to be a tradeoff between centralization of RPA efforts and democratization of robot development, which involves concerns about cost efficiency, process stability, and cybersecurity.

To address those concerns, RPA vendors such as Automation Anywhere recommend implementing multi-layered governance structures to support larger RPA programs. Such multi-layered structures can involve a Center of Excellence (responsible for company-wide automation standards, rules and best practices), Robot Factories (federated business analysis and development teams), Citizen Developers and external implementation partners.

One major question is, who can be a citizen developer. Even with modern low-code tools, programming computers requires a certain mindset in order to be successful.

At UBS and with some of our financial services clients we bumped into unexpected limits of citizen automation. We would run workshops and everyone was excited, but then people struggled to build working bots. Even when using a no-code tool, you need that logical, structured mindset to create good robots. For every automation, first must come an algorithm, but people often don’t think in terms of “if-then-else” and “try-catch-finally”.

Alessandro Mosca, Chief Engineer at F-ONE Group in Frankfurt / Main

The debate goes back a long way. From the early days of computing, the separation between professional programmers (who can implement code) and business users (who know what needs to be achieved) led to friction in software development. The gradual introduction of higher abstraction levels (through Assembler, Fortran, C, object-oriented languages, and finally modern low-code tools) progressively lowered the entry barriers into programming. From that perspective, RPA is a logical step in the long-term trend towards higher levels of software abstraction.

Undoubtedly, RPA expands the circle of professionals who can be directly involved in business process automation. Even if we have not yet reached the point where every person can build a robot, those who have the ambition should be empowered to do so, and RPA platforms provide a comprehensive solution for that. However, executives in charge of RPA initiatives need to be aware of the limits of citizen automation and plan for navigating them.

About the author: Artem Fadin is the founder and managing director of F-ONE Group, an Intelligent Automation solution company. His prior experience includes strategic growth and M&A consulting work for Fortune 500 and middle-market industrial clients as Vice President at Delphi Advisors in Frankfurt.