There is Power in Thinking Small
- By Howard M. Cohen
- January 22, 2024
We’re already starting to see the lines between users and citizen developers start to blur.
The best examples of how this is happening occur in the Microsoft environment. Clearly, Microsoft wants to establish itself as the leader in citizen development as much as it wants to be the leader in artificial intelligence—which is every bit as much as it wanted to establish itself as the leader in office productivity applications and desktop operating systems in the 1970’s.
One of the huge advantages of the Microsoft Office suite from its very beginnings has been the existence of the macro language, which users can use themselves to form automations and integrated processes between the various applications in the suite. Users who embraced the early macro language back in the 1980’s may very well have been the first “citizen developers."
More sophisticated Excel spreadsheets, for example, could be considered small applications meant to arrange, process, and present data for analysis. Pivot tables extended that functionality to enhance the analysis and expand upon the “what if” power of the spreadsheet.
Power BI, the business intelligence application in the Power Platform took that construct to its obvious destination, making it easier for users to perform even more sophisticated analytics than ever before. Power Automate took the model established in Office macros, extended, and expanded it, and made it accessible to an even larger community of users.
On any given day, millions of users are literally creating small applications using Excel, SQL, the Power Platform, and other Microsoft engines. Just because they are small and of limited functionality doesn’t mean they’re not incredibly useful and valuable. Some users see these small applications of their Microsoft apps as “tools” they use to get their job done.
As we enter the new year, Microsoft has put the release schedule for Copilots on steroids. A quick look at the catalog reveals a growing list of Microsoft Copilots, including:
- Microsoft Copilot
- Microsoft 365 Copilot
- Copilot Pro
- Copilot for Power Platform
- Copilot in Word
- Copilot in Excel
- Copilot in PowerPoint
- Copilot in Outlook
- Copilot for Service
- Copilot for Microsoft Teams
- Copilot in Microsoft 365 Chat
- Copilot GPTs
- Microsoft Security Copilot
- GitHub Copilot for Visual Studio
- Microsoft Copilot Studio
- Copilot in Azure Quantum
The big difference is that now the citizen developer can speak in natural language to the Copilot, telling it what they want their small app tool to do, and the Copilot will craft the necessary processes to make that happen.
This empowers the citizen developer to spend more time thinking about the desired functionality and experimenting with what’s possible. Copilot in Power Apps guides them through the entire app creation process, from creating and importing data tables to designing needed app screens, to ultimately publishing and sharing the app, putting it into production. With built-in tips and feedback, these citizen developers will learn how to build better apps of any size far faster than ever before.
Copilot in Power Automate takes this even further, enabling the citizen developer to build entire workflows composed of the various small apps they create. Say you need an approval process built into SharePoint so that an app deposited in a specific list automatically requests the required approval, and even issues reminders should that approval be delayed or denied. Just tell it to the Copilot. Sounds simple, and it is, but that’s the point! Connect enough small processes and workflows together and eventually you find yourself in a pretty sophisticated new operational environment.
Want a bot to guide the author of that document through the submission process? Copilot in Power Virtual Agents is on the job. Just tell it what you want the author to do when depositing their doc.
Your Citizen Developers Don’t Need to Become Application Architects
This is really the missing piece of the low-code/no-code puzzle come to life. Everyone agrees that all a citizen developer needs to know are the processes that drive their business. But the creation of truly efficient applications is naturally enhanced when a developmental process is involved in its creation. This ability to create each function of a larger application as a small stand-alone app adds a powerful organic development functionality that helps apps grow.
Yes, it’s early, but what we see now is the relationship between people and their digital helpers becoming simpler to navigate, and a more natural process. Microsoft choice of the name “Copilot” is truly well advised and very descriptive of the important relationship they’re working to develop. Every citizen developer and the companies they work for will be the beneficiaries.
Technologist, creator of compelling content, and senior "resultant" Howard M. Cohen has been in the information technology industry for more than four decades. He has held senior executive positions in many of the top channel partner organizations and he currently writes for and about IT and the IT channel.