Bob Violino
Contributing writer

The high returns of low-code development tools

Dec 04, 2018
No Code and Low Code

By accelerating app delivery and reducing development workloads, low-code tools are emerging as a key strategy for supporting business transformation.

coding / programming / development / binary code
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

As organizations forge ahead with digital transformation efforts and many look to speed up the delivery of new applications and services, low-code development tools are becoming increasingly important IT components.

Low-code platforms enable programmers to create applications through graphical user interfaces and configuration instead of traditional programming methods. They often focus on the design and development of specific types of applications such as business processes and databases.

One of the main benefits of low-code tools is that they reduce the amount of hand-coding needed, which can greatly speed up the delivery of business applications. Furthermore, a broader range of workers — not just those who have formal programming skills — can be involved the development process.

A report from research firm Research and Markets published in early 2018 predicted that the global low-code development platform market will grow from $4.32 billion in 2017 to $27.23 billion by 2022, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 44 percent during the forecast period.

Increasing demand for software automation and more innovative applications, along with the ease of development of web and mobile applications, is driving companies of all sizes to adopt low-code development platforms, the report says. And the platforms, which could potentially make software development 10 times faster than traditional methods, are emerging as a key strategy for accelerating application delivery in support of digital business transformation, John Rymer, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, noted in an August 2018 report.

Developers and non-developers alike can make use of low-code development platforms, and they require less training to start. Common features include reusable components, drag-and-drop tools, and process modeling. Individuals or small teams can prototype and deliver applications in days or weeks.

Low-code platforms help advance digital business in three major ways, according to Rymer: They can greatly decrease the time needed to meet business requirements; they harness the forces of “shadow IT” for good, not evil; and they play a vital role in automating operational processes.

Here’s a look at how some organizations are putting low-code tools to work in adding value to their businesses.

Creating an agile environment

Options Clearing Corp. (OCC), an equity derivatives clearing organization, began using a low-code platform from Appian in 2015, in response to a radically-changing financial markets environment that included the need for stricter controls as a result of increasing and evolving industry regulation.

“We sought to mitigate risks by achieving greater control over our manual processes and control procedures,” says Denise Knabjian, first vice president of process innovation at OCC. “This called for a new approach based on a more agile technology that didn’t depend on scarce coding skills or the acquisition and maintenance of an array of hardware.”

The Appian software provides OCC with one unified location for managing a variety of internal processes, such as the development of new products and services; the onboarding of clearing member firms; model lifecycle management; regulatory filings; and material agreements.

“As we continue to transform digitally, the use of a more agile platform helps the company rapidly respond to new or changed business demands of its stakeholders, while maintaining maximum security,” Knabjian says.

While low-code is not no-code, the drag-and-drop capabilities and reusability of components within the Appian platform help streamline the development process, Knabjian says. OCC’s development activities are managed by its Enterprise Technology Solutions (ETS) team within IT. “However, we have also been able to create an innovative activity-monitoring Appian application which allows for direct customization by business users.”

By leveraging low-code technology, OCC has been able to realize benefits such as risk reduction, greater transparency into end-to-end processes, strengthened resiliency, and effective control of processes.

“Additionally, we have helped streamline our audit process by centralizing documentation and evidence collection directly within Appian,” Knabjian says. Previously, when responding to an audit request, teams would spend several hours collecting supporting information contained within a variety of emails and spreadsheets. With the Appian application, “we are able to provide our auditors with direct access to the system to validate all associated information in a more efficient manner,” she says.

One of the keys to OCC’s success with low-code is the strong collaboration between members of IT and business operations. “Our automation is comprised of members of ETS and Process Innovation, who work in close partnership to execute the strategic digital transformation initiatives,” Knabjian says. Led by the enterprise architecture team, IT is also actively involved in the tool selection process, to ensure viability within OCC’s technology infrastructure and overall strategy, she says.

OCC plans to increase its use of the platform as it continues its digital transformation. It has currently automated 14 processes on the platform and continues to look for new ways to automate and streamline processes. “We’re actively building and structuring data to use for future capabilities, creating integrations with other internal systems, and looking at leveraging other technologies such as robotic process automation [RPA] to create efficient processes and reduce risk,” Knabjian says.

Accelerating app delivery

Low-code tools can be especially valuable for smaller companies with limited IT staff and budgets. Such is the case with RediPay, a provider of software that facilitates the payment of supplemental healthcare benefits to employees.

The company deployed a low-code platform from OutSystems in January 2017, when it was looking for the most efficient route it could take to build enterprise-level applications with minimal staff and budget, says Mark Gulley, president and CEO of RediPay. Selecting, testing, and deploying the OutSystems software was a joint exercise between IT, operations, and finance.

RediPay initially used the OutSystems platform to build internal customer service, sales, and on-boarding applications. It most recently completed a consumer mobile app, provider web app, and internal/admin web app.

Through the use of the platform, RediPay can now accomplish at a fraction of the time and cost what used to be heavily labor-intensive scratch development, along with costly quality assurance, testing, and deployment.

“Outcomes will be different for various industries and use cases,” Gulley says. But for RediPay low-code development has led to significant productivity gains, he says.

“Our team truly believes that as our business requirements drive the need for new software solutions, mobile or web, [we] can build them” with low-code, Gulley says. As the core offerings in the OutSystems platform become more robust, that will lead to broader opportunities to leverage the platform, he says.

“I believe in time low-code platforms will be the most efficient frameworks to apply concepts such as containerization, artificial intelligence, and machine learning,” Gulley says.

At this point low-code platforms “still require developers, who once trained can efficiently navigate and gradually begin to leverage the full power of the platform,” Gulley says. “I do think as low-code technology progresses that you will find pockets where non-developers can use these platforms to create a variety of apps, such as sales and marketing tools [and] product mock-ups.”

Facilitating delivery of SharePoint solutions

Liberty Mutual Investments (LMI), a unit of Liberty Mutual Insurance that manages principal investment funds for clients, began using the Nintex Workflow low-code platform in 2010 to help create Microsoft SharePoint applications to support several business processes.

“Nintex is being used to create many of our approval processes that reside within SharePoint,” says Steve Roberts, principal technical engineer at LMI. “As an alternative to creating full-blown Web applications using HTML, Java, C++, or any other language that might be used, Nintex Workflow has provided a simplified graphical low-code solution to creating SharePoint applications that satisfy some of the daily needs of our internal business partners.”

When Roberts began using the product in 2011, despite whatever scripting or language coding skills he possessed, the platform reduced the coding footprint needed to produce business solutions.

“An example of this would be a user onboarding and off-boarding system that would allow users, managers, and IT staff to take a step-by-step approach to user onboarding that allowed for multiple approvals, timely notifications, and Active Directory provisioning of new user accounts,” Roberts says.

By leveraging low-code development, LMI has reduced the time needed to get less complex solutions to production. “Managing user time-off requests in multiple calendars, where simple and repeatable workflows could be created and deployed, enabled us to deliver a solution to the various teams within the department and provide the management team with a functional and visible means to handle their respective staffs,” Roberts says.

The IT department constantly gets requests for SharePoint solutions, in part because the company recently upgraded to the latest SharePoint version, Roberts says. “We are regularly looking to take advantage of the latest versions and functionality within” SharePoint, he says.

Supporting a diverse development environment

At logistics services provider Courier Logistics, the use of a low-code tool from Zoho began modestly in 2014, for a visitor management application. Today, the company uses the software for internal operations, including customer relationship management (CRM), warehouse management, employee management, and other operations.

The company has diverse departments that each handle development in their own way, and before using the platform there was no realistic way to automate development processes to a satisfactory standard, says Rachael McCartney, head of commercial management.

“This was causing numerous issues within the business, including time-consuming manual tasks” and inaccuracies, McCartney says. “Financially, we were chucking money in the wrong direction.”

The company looked at various development applications, “but we didn’t want to always have the hard-coded options,” McCartney says. “We wanted other employees to be able to create simple forms which did not require much development knowledge.”

The majority of applications used in-house are complex systems. But the sales team is able to bolt on its own adaptations of forms, personalized to its own needs. These can then be used to feed into the main core systems. “Like most business we have individuals who wish to work their way as opposed to ways in which we direct,” McCartney says. Low-coding “allows us to make this happen.”

Developing a program within the Zoho platform for warehouse management, CRM and other applications will save Courier Logistics thousands of dollars per year. “In addition to the cost savings, we have enabled our customer service department to handle around 90 percent more inbound customer calls, by enabling them to communicate with drivers electronically rather than attempting to speak to them over the phone,” McCartney says.

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