Gartner redefines the bimodal IT organization

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Talk of bimodal IT raises hackles in some circles. Critics say the term, coined by Gartner in 2014, divides IT staff members into the haves and the have-nots. Those assigned to Mode 1 tasks are stuck with the boring, keep-the-lights-on work, according to detractors, while Mode 2 staff members claim the limelight while working on innovative new projects often involving emerging technologies. Others complain that the bimodal IT model oversimplifies the needs of today’s enterprise. And it sends the message that back-end systems can be left as they are, critics say.

At Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., a few weeks ago, Gartner sought to adjust those perceptions about the bimodal IT organization. In a session provocatively titled “By 2021, Bimodal IT Practices Will Be for Digital Losers,” George Spafford, research director of IT operations at Gartner, explained that Mode 1 is really important because it preserves a company’s cash cows. The cash cows are critical not just because they are what keep a company running but also because they fund the innovative projects that are designed to respond to threats from disruptive upstarts like Airbnb, Uber and Kickstarter.  

The relationship between Mode 1 and Mode 2 is symbiotic. If a business doesn’t invest in Mode 2 projects, a successful startup with innovative ideas could encroach on the cash cow that Mode 1 is designed to protect. “What if somebody that we hadn’t thought about comes up with one of those big, cool hairy ideas, gets a boatload of venture capital and starts taking our cash cow away?” Spafford said. “As our cash cow shrinks, our ability to invest really gets hammered. That’s a death knell.”

Spafford looked to correct what he sees as another misconception about bimodal IT. The model is not so much about speed, Spafford said, as it is about uncertainty. “We have things that we understand really well in the business and in IT,” he said. Those well-understood things fall under Mode 1.

“If you know what you’re doing and there’s certainty [around that], guess what? You have best practices. You have cause, you have effect, you know what you can do. You can also automate the heck out of that.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Mode 2: the technologies and ideas that IT doesn’t understand very well and therefore has more uncertainty about. This is where IT needs to experiment and test out different approaches, according to Spafford. “In most cases you’re just going to have to try and see what comes out of it. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t work,” he said.

The two approaches are needed because “one-size-fits-all doesn’t ever fit anybody very well,” Spafford said. 

Spafford also suggested that bimodal IT will expand to more than two modes over time, likening the model to the gears on a mountain bike. “Does anybody have a two-speed mountain bike? No, right? We’re not just using [the gears] to go faster. We’re using [them] to have better leverage … on different heights of terrain. It’s not just about speed, it’s about getting up that bloody hill,” he said.

Another way of thinking about the bimodal IT organization: Mode 1 and Mode 2 are on a spectrum, he said. “Mode 1 and 2 sound like [they’re] binary. I would tell you that you’re actually talking about a continuum between these modes,” Spafford said.

The end goal for a bimodal IT organization is to become an adaptive enterprise, which Spafford said has the following characteristics:

  • It understands the ecosystem that its business is involved in and adapts accordingly. An adaptive enterprise tailors the solution to the needs of the business, not vice versa.
  • No parts of its revenue-generating products are monolithic. “I talk to organizations every single week where their ability to go faster [and] their ability to innovate [are] being hamstrung by their legacy architectures,” Spafford said.
  • IT has shed its illusion of central control. “IT is beginning to realize that it’s not them or the highway, that it requires an ecosystem [and] that you have multiple players involved,” he said.
  • Products can change pace easily, so that the company can innovate quickly to respond to threats and opportunities.
  • Infrastructure provides a platform for the product teams to use. “You don’t want … every group [to] reinvent the wheel [or build] a server or an environment from scratch,” he said.
  • It has applied standards and discipline to its platform and tool chain, to reduce complexity. “If you allow an explosion of complexity, your costs are going to go in the wrong direction. Your risks are going to go in the wrong direction. Your on-time performance is going to go in the wrong direction,” Spafford said.
  • All levels of the organization stress learning and continual improvement.