Bimodal IT: A Good or Bad Idea?

Written By: Alexandra Levit
January 27, 2016
4 min read
bimodal iT - a good or bad idea

It’s not easy to be an IT department in 2016, but is bimodal IT the answer? That depends on who you ask.

Just when enterprises were starting to figure out their IT infrastructures, along came a slew of connected digital technologies including cloud and mobile computing, big data, and agile development. Before, it was acceptable for constituents to wait a long time for IT to solve a problem. Suddenly, it wasn’t – and IT began to stress out big time. Their digital systems were moving much faster than their traditional ones, and the natives were getting restless.

What is Bimodal IT Anyway?

IT research firm Gartner recently came to the rescue with a potential solution called bimodal IT. Bimodal IT, according to Gartner, is the practice of managing two separate, coherent modes of IT delivery – one focused on stability (traditional IT services) and the other on agility (digital IT services). Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasizing agility and speed.

Argument For Bimodal IT

Peter Sondergaard, head of research for Gartner, had this to say about Gartner’s rationale: “CIOs need to respond to the cataclysmic technology shift within their own organizations. The IT organization can’t turn into a digital startup overnight and, besides, there’s a raft of business-critical responsibilities that it simply can’t (and absolutely should not) divest.”

“Bimodal IT allows the IT organization to respond to the digital divide within their organizations by operating in two modes that are comprehensive and coherent, but deeply different, while exploiting the benefits of both,” he added.

Bimodal IT is also, according to Gartner, a solution for the insidious and growing phenomenon known as shadow IT. If you haven’t heard the term, it’s essentially when individuals or teams in an enterprise do their own thing without the IT department’s official involvement or investment. This, said Gartner, results in integration and security problems.

Gartner has obviously hit on something here. In a survey done by the firm, 45 percent of CIOs currently have a second fast mode of operation. By 2017, Gartner predicts that 75 percent of IT organizations will have a bimodal capability.

Argument Against Bimodal

But Phil Wainewright at digimonica doesn’t agree, and believes enterprises are following Gartner because it’s Gartner, and not because the bimodal IT model actually works. He mentioned several examples of CTOs and analysts who aren’t buying bimodal IT either. William Hill’s CTO, Finbarr Joy, emphasized the need for convergence over modality: “That whole movement around two-phase IT, we are not subscribing to that. You bring everybody along with you, you make sure the whole team is on that journey,” said Joy in a diginomica interview.

“The legacy guys have the domain knowledge, you need them to be on the same path. They’re actually the breakthrough into some of the fast stuff you’ll do, because they know the business so well.”

Wainewright suggested that companies will experience major conflict as Mode 1 and Mode 2 battle for influence and limited resources, and his view is supported by Simon Wardley of the CSC Leading Edge Forum, who argued that effective change requires three types of people: pioneers, settlers and planners. Wardley said that the bimodal approach ignores the crucial role of settlers in mediating between the creativity of pioneers and the industrialization skills of planners. Without the settlers to play that role, he writes:

“You’ll create a them vs us culture. None of the novel concepts will ever be industrialized because the Pioneers won’t develop them enough and the Town Planners will refuse to accept them for being underdeveloped.”

This seems to make sense – if you have effective settlers.

If bimodal IT doesn’t fly, what should IT departments do instead? Wainewright cited analyst Jason Bloomberg, who advised that IT convergence is essential. “What many organizations are finding is that for digital transformation to be successful, it must be end-to-end — with customers at one end and systems of record at the other. Traditional IT, of course, remains responsible for those systems of record.”

How is your enterprise integrating (or not) older legacy and newer digital approaches? Is this a decision the CTO or CIO should make alone, and might the validity of Gartner’s recommendation vary on a case-by-case basis?

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

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