Now for a thought experiment: the alien abduction.

It’s a typical day at work. That is until a flying saucer—straight out of a science fiction novel—whizzes past. You’re suddenly immersed in a magnetizing blue light. Around you, the workplace and all its contents begin sliding upward. Suspended, in zero gravity, the room—and that includes you!—moves toward the floating disk.

As you get closer to the extraterrestrial craft, a green, bigheaded alien leans out of the cockpit. It motions to you. It’s trying to ask you something:

“Take me to your IT leader.” The alien says—or perhaps transmits telepathically. Regardless, it’s clear that this meeting won’t be for discussing faster-than-light travel or eating Reese’s Pieces.

How would your business respond to aliens?


For a midsize or large business, it’s a piece of cake. Just reference the organizational chart, find the senior operator for IT services, and throw that person in the direction of the alien’s … ahem …”visitor’s lounge.” Meanwhile, the rest of the team can head for the hills. Problem solved.

Now, for a small business, the alien’s request presents a black hole of a business problem. Often, it’s difficult to point to a de facto IT leader in a small business.

For instance:

  • Ninety-six percent of small businesses report that the owner gets final say on any software or
    hardware purchase.
  • Four out of 10 workers say they do 30 percent or more of different department tasks on a typical day—which can include IT, analytics, and application development responsibilities.

Nontraditional—or a group of—IT decision-makers frequently hold the mantle of IT leadership in small businesses. This could be the CEO, head developer, or even an external consultant.

Now, who are we going to offer up to the aliens?

This dilemma reveals a major shift in the small business technology landscape. You see, beyond the green alien in our thought experiment, another interstellar interloper has already invaded many small offices. Except, this cosmic being blends in, undetected, with business kind.

If you’re reading this—look around!

At this very moment, this other off-planet intruder could be with you now. Typing on the computer, grabbing their lunch out of the public refrigerator, sharing a desk—your desk. How well do you know your co-workers, and are they who—or more importantly what—they say they are?

I’m talking about the invasion of the citizen IT leader.

To survive a close encounter of the third kind with a citizen IT leader, your small business needs to understand:

  • Who (or what) the citizen IT leader actually is
  • How the citizen IT leader will impact your business
  • Why small businesses that use citizen IT leaders gain a competitive advantage

There’s IT among us: What is a citizen IT leader?

The citizen IT leader is a term that is probably alien to a lot of people. For others, it’s been something that evokes confusion, anxiety, and fear—sort of like an uninvited guest from outer space.

So let’s unpack the term.

citizen-icon‘Citizen’

For starters, the “citizen” in citizen IT leader refers to the citizen X movement.

Gartner views citizen X as a “digitally dextrous” employee who, though outside of IT, uses IT technologies to empower themselves and improve their job (full content available to clients).

Take data analytics for example. Cloud-based, self-service tools have unlocked the powers of BI to all manner of users—regardless of their technical backgrounds. Cloud and intuitive self-service tools have democratized many of the skill-prohibitive IT functions.

What this means is that many types of software and technical business functions are no longer locked in the ivory towers of IT, and now, virtually any business professional can pilot them to generate business value.

Demanding fields such as data analytics, application development, system integration, and IT services are suddenly expanding their ranks to include citizen X via low-code or self-service tools.

citizen-icon‘IT Leaders’

The definition of “IT leaders” is more immediately apparent. But there’s a variety of IT leadership roles, including data scientists, software developers, IT integrators, and IT specialists. Considering small business IT titles and responsibilities are often less rigid than corporate structures, allow me to use IT leader to refer to this group of significant business decision-makers drawing from the toolkit of IT.

Together we get citizen IT leader, a cloud-powered practitioner of IT tools and strategies, though lacking the technical domain knowledge, background experience, or formal training of the traditional IT department and employee.

What’s important to note is that although it may resemble it, this isn’t shadow IT. In fact, the citizen IT leader has the potential to augment IT practices—not sabotage or slow them down—and leads to new avenues of value.

See it with your own eyes—Citizen IT Leaders are real

The citizen IT leader is more than an emerging trend. According to a 2017 Kintone survey, businesses report that giving IT developers access to low-code platforms is of greater importance than skills training.

By 2019, according to Gartner, self-service BI users—with minimal IT department involvement—will produce more analysis than data scientists and traditional BI systems. Since most small businesses do not have large IT departments, the citizen IT leader finds a natural landing site in small business.

By 2020, more than 40 percent of data science tasks will be automated, resulting in increased productivity and broader usage by citizen data scientists. And by 2021, at least 50 percent of large organizations will have incorporated citizen integrator capabilities into their strategic integration infrastructure. It is only a matter of time before this also trickles down as a key initiative in small businesses (full content available to clients).

So what’s going on? Is there something special about the citizen IT leader’s anatomy that is creating this level of impact?

To find out, we’ll look at five strange traits of the citizen IT leader .

5 strange traits of the citizen IT leader

1. They’re small businesses’ open secret

In the past, positions that dipped into IT responsibilities were maligned as shadow IT, discouraged by IT departments on the grounds of misuse of its resources or noncompliance with proper standards. The truth is, many small businesses have naturally evolved the citizen IT leader through necessity. Without large budgets to invest in specialization of functions, small businesses often staff roles that have a myriad of duties spanning across departments.

2. They’re out there, man!

Considering technologies’ increasing role in nearly every department, for every hat a small business professional wears (may it be HR, marketing, or finance) they are equally tangled in that department’s IT conversation. You’ll find citizen IT leaders in HR applying data science to recruiting, IT-savvy marketers helping to create apps to support product campaigns, and operators of finance using IT knowledge to streamline processes.

3. They only grow stronger with technology

The citizen IT leader’s role is easily multiplied and scaled across the business. Self-service tools cut down time needed to onboard new recruits to your growing IT empire (from weeks or months to days or even hours). Mobile access is also a standard feature for many cloud-offerings, allowing certain IT responsibilities to be completed asynchronously and from anywhere.

4. They’re desired for study of their hybrid DNA

Citizen IT leaders can provide an immediate IT solution at locations that need it most. For example, an HR specialist who moonlights as a citizen IT leader can use their firsthand knowledge of retention crisis to inform data analysis. Their intimate experience with this business pain point—a perspective only a member of HR could have—can lead development of an engaging recruiting UX, as an example. This is valuable and it’s only possible with knowledge that straddles two worlds.

5. They form an alliance with the IT department against greater business threats

What may seem like an uneasy alliance forms a natural coalition. In fact, citizen IT practitioners are effectively used in tandem with traditional IT. In this way, the former tackles less complicated tasks and takes the heat off IT departments. This lightens IT department workload and burden on IT resources. Freed to contribute more value added tasks, “classically” trained IT staff lead overarching IT strategy for the company, as well as have bandwidth to undertake more complicated projects.

How to push your IT to the outer limits

  • If your company is already getting stellar results and running smoothly using a traditional IT department model, don’t change a thing. However, consider how you can use technology, strategy, or both to heighten cross-functional collaboration; commit yourself to evolve with technology.
  • Be aware: As IT tasks proliferate and are assigned to citizen IT leaders, access to critical data and systems will be at an all time high. Account for this security vulnerability and contemplate ways to use this changed security layout to your advantage.
  • The citizen IT leader is an opportunity to align IT resources closely with business priorities. Do so to gain cost savings, space to innovate, and a position of competitive strength in the market.