Empowering Non-Tech Employees With AI

by Lizette Roman-Johnston
October 24, 2023
Empowering non-tech employees with AI

AI is reaching a point where it is user-friendly enough for almost anyone to use, not just to write essays or make art but to generate code. 

Taking part in a “viral” phenomenon called citizen development, a Home Depot employee used AI-generated code to optimize his work in demand forecasting. This project accounted for nine figures of extra income for Home Depot, unsurprisingly earning him the honor of Employee of the Year.

The popularization of citizen development — a term coined by Thomas H. Davenport, Ian Barkin, and Kerem Tomak in their HBR article “We’re All Programmers Now” — marks a time when IT departments are not the only ones introducing their companies to AI.

Companies like Home Depot, Lego, BMW, and PepsiCo, who are not historically known for their AI use, are nurturing citizen development, showing other businesses that blurring the line between IT and non-IT may be the next big thing for the bottom line.

The benefits of citizen development

Reluctance to implement new technological practices is normal for business leaders. However, the benefits of encouraging employees to use generative AI in their daily work are worth examining.

The users are the creators

Nobody knows their work like the ones performing it. Citizen development empowers employees from any department to optimize their work experience, knowing firsthand which tasks require the most time and resources and how they could potentially be automated.

Freeing up IT

Often, when non-IT departments put in requests to IT, they take months to fulfill because IT is occupied with more complex tasks. While IT can still oversee the systems created by employees, citizen development will ultimately allow IT to focus on more high-level technical work.

The pain points of citizen development

When the leaders at Lego began experimenting with citizen development, their IT department was initially reluctant. This has been a common response among businesses encouraging their non-IT employees to experiment with AI. Some of these “what ifs” include:

  • What if a company begins to rely on an application that is not accurate?
  • What if the employee who created the application leaves the company without thoroughly documenting the process?
  • What if the IT department loses much of its purpose or even becomes obsolete?

Despite concern from IT professionals, experts have a positive outlook on how citizen development will affect IT. Thomas H. Davenport sees IT departments maintaining the role of an overseer of citizen development, using their expertise to ensure accuracy and train employees in these programs. He also views this as an opportunity for IT professionals to direct more resources toward more complex innovations.

The Role of Leadership: Determining the Why, Who, and How of Citizen Development

While the IT department was weary, the head of demand planning at Lego was supportive of citizen development, demonstrating the importance of team leadership in providing encouragement and ensuring that people are following the necessary control processes.

When discussing the implementation of citizen development, high-level leadership must ask themselves: why citizen development?; who should take part in it?; and how should it be implemented?

The “Why”

It can be easy to get swept up in the buzz around new business and technology trends, but business leaders must be mindful and intentional about why new technology would benefit their organization.

Thoughtful leaders will ask:

  • How can we use AI in a way that improves our company’s bottom line?
  • Which departments would most benefit from AI use?
  • What are the risks of using AI in certain departments, and how can we mitigate these risks?

The “Who”

How do leaders know which employees will take part in citizen development?

The HBR authors recommend recruiting citizen developers from their existing teams. Many will volunteer, likely for any of the following reasons:

  • They are already experimenting with making the everyday processes of their job more efficient.
  • They are passionate about technology despite not being employed as an IT professional.
  • They are seeking recognition or are incentivized by their employer.
  • They want to improve what their company does for society (i.e. healthcare or environmental research).

The “How”

Regarding the implementation of citizen development, the HBR authors suggest fostering an environment of community learning.

Training is a crucial step that requires careful consideration. Who conducts the training depends on what technology is being used and what it is being used for. Training is also where IT departments will likely step in.

Whatever the best process for an organization, leaders must create a citizen development infrastructure that is consistent and effectively communicated to employees across departments.



As business leaders in 2023, it is crucial to embrace change. Overlooking the benefits of citizen development is unwise, but implementing it carelessly is likely worse. Proactive leaders will have important discussions with one another and communicate decisions down the pipeline. Reluctance from some employees, especially those in IT, may be inevitable, but acknowledging these concerns and presenting a path forward is a necessary step toward breakthrough innovation.

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