How to speed up small business digital transformation through no-code tools

by | Aug 18, 2021

No-code tools can empower your staff to automate processes.
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Digital transformation can make or break small businesses. Deloitte found that small businesses that have mastered digital skills are outperforming those that have not. Using digital tools helps small businesses get more customers, perform better financially, grow their employee base, and innovate more. It’s hard to say no to that. But if your small business isn’t quite as digitally transformed as you would like, no-code development tools can help.

No-code tools, defined.

No-code tools are application development tools that require no programming skills or training. The idea is that your employees can quickly create applications that would otherwise require the time (and expense) of a professional programmer.

No-code tools have graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that you manipulate by clicking on icons and dropping and dragging objects on the screen. If you use an Apple or Microsoft Windows personal computer, you are familiar with GUIs. Likewise, most smartphone apps have GUIs to make them intuitive and easy to learn.

No-code tools can help anyone become a productive application developer.

How no-code works.

Gartner points out that “no-code” is no more than a marketing slogan. Code always exists when you develop a new application. In this case, it’s just hidden under the GUI, making it user-friendly and intuitive to use.

Think of a no-code tool as an automatic car. The gearbox for the transmission is hidden from the driver: all she sees is D, R, N, indicating Drive, Reverse Neutral. Those letters are the GUI for the transmission. You no longer need to shift gears when driving an automatic car. The shifts still happen, but they are hidden away, so you don’t have to understand how to use the clutch, when to shift, and so on.

A no-code tool works similarly. Say you want to upload data from an Excel spreadsheet into your CRM application. Integrating the interface between the two still needs to be programmed. But you don’t have to do that. You’re just giving orders at a higher level by, say, clicking on your spreadsheet icon and dragging it to an icon that represents your CRM app. There! You’ve shifted from first to second gear without touching the stick. It doesn’t mean the mechanics don’t still need to happen. You’re just protected from the bothersome details.

These tools can transform your regular employees—your accountant, your warehouse manager, your baker—into productive application developers. With no-code tools, you can begin digitizing processes on your shop floor, your back office, or your front office. The advantages include faster time-to-market of helpful apps and lower costs because you don’t have to pay an IT professional.

The difference between no-code and low-code tools.

You’ll almost always hear of “no-code/low code” tools in one breath, as if they are the same thing. However, there is a distinct difference between them.

Low-code tools require coding—sometimes quite a lot—and therefore some knowledge of programming frameworks. They are typically used to improve the productivity of professional developers and would be too advanced for business users with no technical training. But remember, no-code tools require no programming experience at all.

The answer to your digital transformation challenges.

When it comes to digital transformation, small businesses are at a distinct disadvantage when compared to larger companies. There are two main reasons:

1. Lack of liquidity. Small businesses typically don’t have the cash—or access to working capital—to make investments in the technologies required to complete their digital transformation journeys. During the pandemic, most small businesses were desperate to keep their doors open. Most of those that succeeded rationed their cash very carefully to survive on a month-to-month basis.

2. Little-to-no in-house IT expertise. Larger businesses have information technology (IT) teams to take responsibility for all things digital. The larger the company, the larger that team. Small businesses, if they are lucky, have a single in-house technology guru. Others depend on outsourced support. In any case, technical resources are probably stretched to the max.

In the face of these limitations, giving no-code tools to your employees could make a dramatic difference when it comes to digital transformation.

What you can do with no-code tools.

Here are some examples of what your employees can do with no-code tools:

  • Create an app that lets employees view their vacation allotments without bothering HR.
  • Build an automation app that tells you the day’s revenues up to the minute with the push of a button.
  • Digitize employee onboarding forms so that employees don’t need to fill out paper forms, and automatically send that data to your HR database for processing.

Some no-code tools are designed to work within a specific area, like website building. Others are more holistic. For example, AppyPie is a popular no-code platform that democratizes the design and development of business applications. Airslate is used to automate and integrate business processes. And Bubble is good for developing web apps in particular.

Many of these internet-based tools fall into the “freemium” category of online software:  a limited version is available for free, and then there are versions with more features and power that you pay for on a monthly subscription basis. Cost-conscious small businesses might well be able to get away with the freebies before investing in the pay versions.

No-code tools can help take the burden off IT professionals.

Citizen developers.

If you haven’t heard about citizen developers … well, now you have. You create citizen developers when you turn to your regular employees to do what programmers used to do. It’s the latest thing in enterprise IT circles and is being used more and more by small businesses.

Gartner found that 41 percent of businesses already have active citizen developers. 20 percent of those that don’t are either evaluating or planning to do so soon.

What does this have to do with no-code tools? A citizen developer is an employee with no former training in programming who builds applications or automates processes using such tools.

There are two reasons for small businesses to use no-code tools to help nurture citizen developers. First, such employees are closest to the business. Your bookkeeper, for example, understands the tedious manual process of sorting out invoices to be paid, and would be a prime candidate for automating it using a no-code tool.

Secondly, no-code tools take pressure off your IT person(s). If you have an in-house technologist, her burden will be significantly lightened if citizen developers do some of the lifting.

In conclusion: some caveats…

No-code tools are not a cure for whatever digitally ails your small business. You can end up with apps that are clumsy or inefficient. You also don’t want your employees to go crazy with app building. They have their real jobs to do, after all.

But for small companies that are desperate to automate their basic processes and can’t hire a professional developer or an outsource resource because of cost, no-code can be a very powerful solution. No-code technology can be an intuitive and integrated resource that allows small business owners to continue to move forward on their digital transformation journey while focusing on the things that matter most—their products, services, and customers.

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Alice LaPlante
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