Harnessing Grassroots Automation

With a modest amount of training, nontechnical employees can automate complex processes and generate significant value for their organizations.

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Benedetto Cristofani/theispot.com

Companies are increasingly embracing the idea of helping nontechnical staff members — those who have deep business-area expertise — learn to directly automate processes that give them headaches and eat up their time. For instance, human resources employees are uniquely qualified to identify the mundane and repetitive parts of their jobs, such as candidate-tracking tasks, and then, with some training, build automations that will relieve them of chores such as duplicative data entry and data cleaning.

While the development of such applications by so-called citizens within organizations requires careful planning and governance to be effective, low-code and no-code technologies have become commonplace and made such ventures possible.1 Specifically, robotic process automation (RPA) and a broader intelligent automation (IA) suite that allows for the redesign and automation of workflows are now straightforward enough that functional experts can design, develop, and deploy IT applications and analytical models themselves. No longer do all projects require mediation by IT employees, who might not fully understand end users’ pain points. These tools of citizen-led automation are allowing less-technical people to build complex systems that improve their work experience, and they are already generating considerable value for many businesses.

In this article, we draw on interviews with six companies — AT&T, Dentsu, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), PwC, Voya Financial, and Wesco — to describe their efforts to join the citizen automation movement. We also detail how other organizations can best develop these capabilities and the benefits and challenges of doing so.

What’s Driving Citizen Automation

At its core, encouraging non-IT professionals to participate in designing their own work tools is not new. Enterprises have long tapped into teams across their businesses for process improvement ideas. Six Sigma belt wearers, for instance, have been trained in improving small processes. What’s new is that today’s citizens can actually sketch out and then run the future state they were once only able to describe to IT development teams.

Harnessing citizenry is partly necessary because there are simply not enough people with the professional IT skills needed to accomplish the torrent of digital initiatives on companies’ agendas. Even conservative estimates project a dramatic shortage of tech workers by 2030.



1. C. Johannessen and T. Davenport, “When Low-Code/No-Code Development Works — and When It Doesn’t,” Harvard Business Review, June 22, 2021, https://hbr.org.

2. T. Phillips, “Is There a Shortage of Developers? Developer Shortage Statistics in 2022,” CodeSubmit, May 2, 2022, https://codesubmit.io.

3.Our Digital Transformation Journey,” PwC, accessed July 9, 2023, www.pwc.com.

4. T.H. Davenport and G. Schaefer, “How to Establish an Automation Center of Excellence,” MIT Sloan Management Review, May 26, 2021, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

5. A. Yadav, “The Rise of Automated Machine Learning,” TDWI, Jan. 15, 2019, www.tdwi.org.

6. T.H. Davenport and D. Brain, “Before Automating Your Company’s Processes, Find Ways to Improve Them,” Harvard Business Review, June 13, 2018, https://hbr.org.

7. T. Davenport, “Citizen Data Science and Automation at AT&T,” Forbes, Jan. 30, 2023, www.forbes.com.

8. T. Davenport, “Continuous Improvement and Automation at Voya Financial,” Forbes, Dec. 9, 2019, www.forbes.com.

9. A. Polner, D. Wright, K. Thopalli, et al., “Automation With Intelligence,” Deloitte Insights, June 30, 2022, www2.deloitte.com.

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