How Bimodal IT Can Kill Your Company

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Is bimodal IT the way to get innovation and stability right in the enterprise? Or will kill your company? John McCarthy of Forrester says it's far more likely to do the latter than the former.

There's a movement in the IT world that says there's room for both the tortoise and the hare. Groups charged with being innovative and agile don't have time to sweep the floors and keep the lights on. Teams responsible for basic blocking and tackling need to concentrate on being safe and reliable rather than highly innovative. This "bimodal IT" scenario is the key to successful big-enterprise IT, experts say.

In a recent report, "The False Promise of Bimodal IT," McCarthy admitted there's no mystery about why CIOs are looking for new processes or architectures to help them keep up with the fast-paced, rapidly shifting demands of their business. What he questions is whether bimodal IT is the best way to do so -- especially when he looks at IT's long-term future.

Gartner defines bimodal IT like this:

Bimodal IT is the practice of managing two separate, coherent modes of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility. Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasizing agility and speed.

Companies look at the definition, see it makes sense for this week's challenges, and charge forward. McCarthy said he started exploring the real benefits and drawbacks when some of those companies began talking with him.

"The whole thing started with a bunch of clients complaining. We started to dig around and think through it and it just didn't work," McCarthy said in a telephone interview with InformationWeek. The root of the problem is bound up in basic physics, he said. "What happens when you bring two things spinning at different rates together? Friction. That brings heat, and that brings fire. That's the tension we were talking about," McCarthy said.

In the report, McCarthy said bimodal IT does several things that are counterproductive for a company trying to move forward. Among the most egregious? According to McCarthy, bimodal IT gives executives the comforting, but misleading, message that backend systems can be safely left as they are. It keeps significant portions of the IT infrastructure insulated from business units and customers.

[Is it time to say goodbye to IT? Read The End of IT: More Questions, Some Answers.]

McCarthy said security-seeking CIOs have enablers among technology vendors. "You could make the case that bimodal continues the cozy complacency between CIOs who don't want to transform and vendors who don't want to change," he said. "I don't think the strategy is going to work for a lot of these companies and a lot of these vendors."

For McCarthy, bimodal IT has two side effects that can have a significant impact on a company. The first is that it makes IT too slow. In his report, McCarthy wrote, "Customers' expectations are evolving more rapidly than ever before. The faster you execute, the more quickly you will win them over." When a portion of the IT operation is focused on not moving quickly, it can prove to be a drag on the entire group. The impact on customers, specifically, is part of the second side effect.

The second side effect, inherent in holding part of the IT operation aside to be inward-focused, means a portion of the company isn't looking at customers. The focus on customers, more than speed or a particular discipline, is what McCarthy sees as the critical differentiator in companies that are succeeding.

"It's not just all of the agile-based technology methods that companies have to deal with, but you see the leaders building a more modern end-to-end process and toolkit," he said. "They're using design thinking and minimum requirements to see what truly adds value to the customer. Without that you're just using agile to do the wrong thing more quickly."

Companies clinging to bimodal IT are holding on to a practice that can't be successful in the long run, according to McCarthy. The only question for CIOs is whether they will make the move away from bimodal on their own terms, or under duress. "The economics, the deliverables -- all these things are tectonic plates in IT that are shifting," said McCarthy. "Will the CIOs make the change, or will a new shift in senior management force the change?"

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