The Problem with Bimodal IT
Bimodal IT cannot deliver on its aims because it misses the organizational and personal aspects of an integrated, high-speed, digital business.
- By Barry Devlin
- December 16, 2016
Digitalization, delocalization, and acceleration of customer actions and interactions are both destroying and redefining old models of how business works across all industries. Information and technology are at the heart of these trends but, unfortunately, the role and approach of IT within business organizations remains tantalizingly unclear.
As IT has tried to adapt to this changing world, one approach -- promoted by Gartner since 2014 -- has gained considerable attention: bimodal IT. The basis of this model is that the IT organization must divide its attention between two very different goals in a modern business.
The first goal (mode 1) is to "keep the lights on," focusing entirely on ensuring the continuing operations of the legacy systems of the business. The second goal (mode 2) is to build the new infrastructure and applications demanded by the digital business -- the foundation for the future success of the business. The bimodal IT approach thus proposes that the IT organization should be split in two, one forward facing and focused on new technologies, and the other tending to the existing, old-technology environment.
Given such diametrically opposed goals, this approach appears reasonable at first glance. After all, how can a single organization look to maintain and preserve the best of the past while designing and building the future infrastructure on very different platforms with a focus on future goals? Similar to the "skunkworks" developed in large, traditional hardware and software vendors of past decades, Gartner has proposed the bimodal approach to place a Chinese wall between these conflicting drivers.
The longer-term success of these skunkworks approaches is, however, debatable. In fact, many have delivered poorly or -- more important -- failed in the transition to mainstream. Furthermore, the software/hardware development environment for vendors is distinctly less integrated than that required in a mainstream business.
I believe the bimodal approach to IT to be deeply flawed on several fronts.
First is the deeply integrated information and process environment just mentioned. In a modern business, running at the speed of insistent customer demand, it is mandatory to efficiently and speedily link processes and share data across different departments, activities, and even across business boundaries. The necessary support systems span legacy and modern applications. In fact, much of the foundational data used in modern customer-insight applications comes originally from the legacy world. Bimodal IT only adds an organizational development barrier to an already complex problem.
Second, the bimodal IT approach ignores the organizational and psychological implications of a two-track IT shop, where one part of the organizations gets to play with the "sexy" stuff while the other part concentrates on mundane housekeeping tasks. Motivating and retaining this second team is fraught with challenges. At best, they want to make it to the A-team; at worst, they will spend more time improving their skills and writing CVs than maintaining COBOL code.
Third, creating two IT units where once there was one actually does nothing to address the underlying need to equally support the old and the new in the IT environment. They may have been developed in different eras, on different platforms, but their underlying business goal is identical: to serve the business. Furthermore, the first agenda item of the newly split IT organizations is likely to be a dogfight over budget between them.
In fact, the need in the digital business is to go in exactly the opposite direction: to reduce the barriers and increase cooperation and collaboration between all the different and disparate parts of the business -- within the business and IT organizations and across them. I call this approach the biz-tech ecosystem and have discussed it since 2013 as the underlying philosophy that businesses must adopt to build a futureproof business.
Five principles underlying the biz-tech ecosystem drive symbiosis across the organization:
- Reintegration of silos within and across business and IT to allow information coherence and drive technology and organizational consistency
- Interdependence between novel technology and new business opportunities that drives advances in technology and enables new business possibilities in a classic positive feedback loop
- Cross-over between business people who envision how technical advances recreate business and IT people who see how emerging technology can satisfy novel business needs in new ways
- Cooperation that dissolves the boundaries between the business, its suppliers and customers, and governmental agencies, eliminating delays and errors through free flow of information
- Trust that replaces competitive and adversarial relationships if we are to avoid a runaway, hypercompetitive, technology-driven environment that ultimately devours itself
Focusing on these principles to drive them down to specific actions and behaviors in the existing organization and forge links between the parts of the organization is a more effective strategy for implementing a digital business than breaking up IT and creating new and artificial organizational boundaries that must be overcome.
Dr. Barry Devlin defined the first data warehouse architecture in 1985 and is among the world’s foremost authorities on BI, big data, and beyond. His 2013 book, Business unIntelligence, offers a new architecture for modern information use and management.