What Is Bimodal IT and What Does It Actually Look like in Practice?

Feb 5, 2016 Cloud Dennis Junk

What-is-BImodal-IT.jpgThe Gartner Research Group caused a stir back in 2014 when they recommended that businesses take a “Bimodal” approach to IT. Gartner is one of the most influential independent technology research institutes for businesses in a wide array of industries, and their prescription to divide IT departments into two somewhat separate teams was apparently based on their own estimate that 75% of enterprises are already doing this kind of bifurcation, deliberately or otherwise—and 75% of those enterprises are failing at it, presumably for lack of deliberation.

Bimodal, or 2-speed IT means having one team focus on operations while another focuses on researching, developing, and testing new technologies. The first mode includes network and infrastructure maintenance, desktop support, datacenter monitoring, and any other task that goes into keeping business-critical systems up and running. The commoditization of this first mode makes it a prime candidate for outsourcing. That’s why many larger, technologically progressive firms turn mode one over to a managed services provider, freeing their internal staff to engage in what is essentially DevOps.

This second mode, meanwhile, might focus on creating new line-of-business applications to increase production efficiency, or it might focus on the development of customer-facing applications to optimize engagement. Many of the experts who weighed in on Gartner’s suggestion agreed that bimodal IT, at least in principle, covers all the important bases. Some of these experts, however, warn that, in practice, dividing IT departments into separate organizations could cause almost as many problems as it helps to solve.

Rival Camps?

A useful way of thinking about the two modes is that the first is about keeping everything working the way you need it to, while the second is about exploring ways to make it work better. Mode one is operations. Mode two is innovations.

One of the challenges businesses pursuing a bimodal strategy will face, though, is that the actual human beings working on either side of the divide will have competing priorities based on their naturally divergent goals. The operations people want stability and try to avoid disruptions at all costs, while the innovations people strive for improvement and are given to constant experimentation.

Bernard Golden, VP of Strategy for ActiveState Software, argues in a post for CIO that Gartner’s bimodal prescription is a recipe for sewing tension. “As this bimodal reality sets in,” he writes, “one can expect many companies to experience huge conflict as the two camps engage in pitched battles for influence, resources, and power.” Since people on the operations side will be seen as doing little but keeping legacy systems working, while people on the innovations side will get all the glory for taking the company into the future, it’s easy to imagine how the disputes will play out.  

Funding Sources and the Cloud

A follow-up post on CIO by Mary Pratt points out that many businesses have already found a way to avoid this kind of squabbling over resources. “Funding for operations comes from the central IT department,” Pratt writes, paraphrasing infrastructure expert Robert Quarterman, “whereas funding for innovation comes from business units—as does advocacy for individual projects.”

An issue companies are facing more often today is that people in some departments are “going rogue” with their own technology initiatives, taking advantage of various cloud offerings like SaaS. This is just one of the problems you may run into when you allow bimodal IT to happen on its own without proper planning and management. It usually occurs when central IT isn’t responsive enough to the business unit that wants to make use of the new technology, often because they’re too busy with maintenance or support tasks.

Pratt credits Rob Meilen, CIO of Hunter Douglas, with the observation that it’s the IT work itself that falls into one or another of the two categories, and whether the IT department is organized that way or not, the workers tend to end up focusing on one mode or another too. This underscores Gartner’s point that most businesses are already bimodal in some sense; they just need to make it official so they can manage it more effectively.

Communication and Outsourcing

The mere existence of DevOps shows that the two sides can work together, and unless the technology is completely cloud-based they really have to collaborate at some point in every project. What’s innovative today has to operate in the future.

Businesses handle the collaboration between the two sides in different ways. You can assign team members to different sides for each project. You can have dedicated team members for each side who meet and communicate regularly. Or you can outsource operations to a managed services provider. (Outsourcing ongoing innovations, however, is probably a non-starter, since the developers need to have a lot of organizational knowledge.) The point of the Gartner recommendation, it seems, is to encourage businesses to work out a strategy for managing both sides before the predictable conflicts arise.   

But what bimodal actually looks like for too many businesses today is IT running to put out one fire after another while forward-looking projects either get ignored or get taken up by individual departments signing up for cloud services. Tom Davenport, a research fellow and business professor who writes for the Wall Street Journal, envisions a future when even the entirety of datacenter operations are handled through cloud providers, who deal with support issues as well. Davenport sees this as evidence of the eventual decline of outsourcing, but what effect this degree of dependence on the cloud would have on a business’s ability to innovate is difficult to tell.

For now, it seems most bigger companies at least will have to find a way to manage bimodal IT departments in one form or another. They may as well take some time and figure out how to do it successfully.

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