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What Exactly is bimodal IT?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

There’s a big push currently (notably from the likes of Gartner) for IT departments to create a bi-modal capability. This dual mode of operating is in response to the digital shift we’ve seen in recent years which has repositioned the role of IT in the organisation. The challenge for IT is that with this repositioning IT now has two roles – its old role as IT cost centre, and its new role as Digital partner to the rest of the business. Each role requires a different mode of operating and delivering.

The old IT world generally had a one size fits all way of delivering and operating. Everything was waterfall delivery. There were business relationship managers, there was an ITIL based IT Ops function. However, only having this mode of operating doesn’t make sense anymore. Two modes (or even more) are required as IT is no longer just about keeping operational IT costs down and systems running, it is also about keeping the business one step ahead in the digital gold rush. That means being able to produce digital products faster and earlier than the competition, driving technology innovation, and being able to almost instantly respond and adapt to changing market and business needs.

Clearly the world of old IT and the new digital IT don’t sit nicely together.

Clearly the world of old IT and the new digital IT don’t sit nicely together. Old ‘traditional’ IT was naturally cautious, focused on cost control and the internal customer. New Digital IT is all about speed, revenue growth and the end customer.  The below table illustrates some of the contrasts:

The contrasting drivers of Bi-Modal IT

When you look at the two modes the question many people ask is why have Mode 1 at all. Indeed, at a recent DevOps conference I attended there was a big push to reject the bimodal model altogether.

When you look at the two modes the question many people ask is why have Mode 1 at all.

This is a topic I’ll pick up in another blog post, but to paraphrase the standard argument – much of what IT does is still considered by many to still be best served by Mode 1. The running of your service desk and its systems, for instance, or keeping that long standing mainframe system up that you just don’t want to ever make changes to (because the last person who knew about it recently passed away).

To help bring this to life, here’s some real life examples of how some company’s do bimodal(client names removed for obvious reasons):

  1. Digital media company: IT is split into digital and enterprise IT. The Digital IT area focuses on delivering digital customer facing IT, including back end system changes related to these. Agile is used for delivery, albeit with traditional Project Managers providing oversight. Enterprise IT looks after internal IT system changes (e.g. Finance system) and the running of shared infrastructure. The Digital IT function delivers faster and has different funding and governance models to the Enterprise IT function as both have different needs.
  2. Engineering company: All of IT is effectively delivering in a Mode 2 way of working, save of for the build and updates of backend IT infrastructure (internal data centre, networks etc) which is still done in a waterfall, Mode 1 manner. The company considered Mode 2 ways of working for IT Infrastructure, but found that area to be better suited to a Mode 1 world.
  3. Energy provider: Traditional IT model is used by the IT department. Outside of that a digital department has been created to work in a Mode 2 manner for new IT ventures and digital products. The two departments are effectively siloed – with the Digital department given license to operate away from the legacy IT systems and ways of working in the interest of speed and innovation.

So that’s bimodal. Gartner takes care not to call the two modes Waterfall and Agile as that is an over simplification (they often say linear and non-linear instead).  However, that is a key way of looking at it for me. Mode 2 just doesn’t work with large waterfall programmes. Large scaled agile programmes of work are also tough, but doable in this mode.