bimodal IT (bimodal information technology)

Bimodal IT is a two-tiered IT operations model that allows for the creation of IT systems and processes that are stable and predictable as well as agile and fast. The term was coined in 2014 by Gartner, which defines the two tiers as follows: "Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasizing agility and speed."

Each mode requires different processes, people, technology and budgets to operate effectively.

To achieve bimodal IT capability, IT organizations will need to adopt "more appropriate governance and planning mechanisms, as well as create a capability and a culture that allows them to experiment more, fail fast, fail small and fail visibly," analysts Simon Mingay and Mary Mesaglio wrote in the April 2015 report "How to Achieve Enterprise Agility With a Bimodal Capability."

IT's need for a Mode 2 has become more urgent in recent years as companies scramble to adapt to a digital economy -- an economy driven by technologies that bridge the physical and virtual worlds, such as cloud, mobile, internet of things (IoT) and virtual reality.

As consumers and workforces increasingly operate in a virtual world, businesses are realizing they have to rethink not only their legacy IT systems but also their business processes, products, customer services and business models. This business shift is widely referred to as digital transformation and requires a close partnership between business and IT.

Gartner's position that bimodal IT represents a brand-new approach has received its share of pushback. Harvard Business School Emeritus Professor John Kotter, for example, described a similar approach to bimodal IT in a May 2011 paper titled "Hierarchy and Network: Two Structures, One Organization," published in the Harvard Business Review. Kotter laid out a case for supporting two IT operating models: a hierarchical mode that promotes consistency and optimization and "a more teaming, egalitarian, and adaptive network" mode.

MarkoInsights IT analyst Kurt Marko has argued that IT has always practiced the a two-tiered model. "Whether you call it legacy versus emergent systems, brownfield versus greenfield deployments or sustaining versus disruptive technologies, the dichotomy between old and new or maintenance and development has been around since the dawn of IT," Marko wrote in his June 2015 analysis "Bimodal IT: A New Buzzword For Old Concepts Presents a Teachable Moment."

Forrester Research asserted in an April 2016 report, "The False Promise of Bimodal IT," that two separate IT groups working at different speeds are "fundamentally unable to address customer and enterprise needs for agility." Forrester Research has long used the term IT MOOSE when referring to the nondiscretionary budget required to run and maintain IT systems in distinction to discretionary spending on IT innovation. MOOSE is an acronym for "Maintain and Operate the Organization, Systems and Equipment."

How to create a bimodal IT strategy: Mode 1 considerations

According to Gartner, a common misconception that organizations have when creating a bimodal IT strategy is that Mode 1 IT processes and cultures do not need to change.

"But what CIOs quickly learn is that when scaling bimodal, Mode 2 cannot succeed without changes to Mode 1," Gartner analysts Donna Scott and Mingay wrote in a July 2017 report, "Scaling Bimodal -- Fusing IT with the Business."

As organizations move to a bimodal approach, they must renovate their legacy IT systems, the Gartner report read, because these systems are often fragile. "A single change to one [legacy system] could result in a massive outage affecting the business's ability to sell and transact business."

CIOs need to work closely with the infrastructure and operations team to enforce strict change management practices.

Legacy systems are a good place to start when moving to bimodal IT. CIOs should determine which legacy systems are core to the digital platform that will be the foundation for business transformation. CIOs might decide to outsource noncore systems or move them to software as a service. Systems that are core to business transformation are typically modernized, architected or replaced.

The report states that companies aiming to be digital leaders in their industries, or ones that are directly threatened by digital competitors, spend "tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on core systems renovation" over a one-to-two-year time frame instead of the more typical three-to-five-year span.

Cultural obstacles are often cited as the single biggest threat to launching a bimodal strategy. In addition to renovating core IT systems, CIOs must be prepared to directly address the cultural factors that can torpedo a bimodal strategy.

Front office systems vs. back office systems

When embarking on bimodal IT, Gartner recommends organizations start small and "learn by doing it, not by reading about it." Organizations should choose some projects they believe will be best managed by Mode 2. In its early advice on bimodal IT, Gartner stated that Mode 1 tends to involve systems of record, like back-end systems such as an ERP application. Mode 2 is anchored in systems of innovation or projects and front office applications that influence customer experience and often rely on technologies such as cloud, big data and analytics, and IoT.

When coming up with innovation projects suited for Mode 2, it is important to not get stuck in idea generation and management, Gartner warns. Instead, start incubating ideas quickly to test their viability, which will require funds, resources and a framework for measuring innovation.

Also, when making the distinction between Mode 1 and Mode 2 projects, IT leadership should keep in mind that some of the new practices and technologies developed and deployed in customer-facing Mode 2 projects, such as AI, machine learning, augmented reality and IoT, will eventually be cycled back to Mode 1 as organizations scale their bimodal strategies.

Getting started on Mode 2: Agile, lean, DevOps

Mode 2, which puts a premium on IT agility and speed and emphasizes learning through iteration, incorporates principles and skills associated with other development approaches that many CIOs have implemented. These approaches include the following:

  • Agile is the software development methodology that anticipates the need for flexibility and pragmatism when delivering a product.
  • Lean management is the need for continuous improvement and the elimination of unnecessary or repetitive business processes.
  • DevOps is the blending of tasks performed by a company's application development and systems operations teams.

A common starting point for bimodal IT is Agile, but Gartner cautions that CIOs should not assume that by using an Agile approach their organizations are bimodal. First, Agile is increasingly being applied to Mode 1-style IT service delivery and is a set of methodologies for Mode 1 or Mode 2. Second, bimodal goes beyond re-engineering IT processes and capabilities to include change on a much bigger scale, Gartner argues.

"When CIOs scale bimodal beyond IT, the way the enterprise thinks and behaves changes -- in fact, the entire operating mode changes, affecting internal processes across the organization," Scott and Mingay wrote in their 2017 report. "The business and IT become fused."

The bimodal approach acknowledges that IT is no longer just a service provider but a full business partner, Gartner states. As organizations scale their bimodal strategies, project teams will be replaced by multidisciplinary product teams with joint business and IT accountability.

The importance of bimodal governance strategy

Moving to an operating model based on joint business-IT accountability, Gartner warns, will be a hard challenge for many CIOs and will not happen overnight.

At many businesses, governance processes were developed for control, not business agility. These processes support a hierarchal structure and top-down decision-making, not the flat organizations and self-organizing teams that many experts believe are key to agility, innovation and digital transformation.

Changing these governance processes to enable bimodal IT will require the involvement of senior leadership and will raise issues, including changes to how IT is funded and changes to how program and portfolio management teams have traditionally operated, Gartner states. It will require a careful analysis of governance procedures that add bureaucracy but not much value.

New bimodal governance processes should be aimed at enabling self-organizing teams with fewer management layers. Given the important role of teams in a bimodal IT approach, performance policies will also need to shift from a sole focus on individual performance to team outcomes.

How to create a bimodal IT staff

The bimodal imperative for flatter organizations, for more delegated decision-making, and more team and individual autonomy means that CIOs will need to find and develop people who can operate in such an environment.

Gartner believes that employees have "innate competencies that favor Mode 1 or Mode 2," with Mode 2 skills and traits being less prevalent in traditional IT organizations than Mode 1.

CIOs and IT management teams will need to figure out how to acquire Mode 2 capabilities. Gartner recommends they start by creating detailed "talent profiles" for bimodal jobs and using universities and nontraditional sources to build talent pipelines.

As organizations scale bimodal IT, Gartner emphasizes the need for "versatilists," or IT people who can take on a "broader set of roles." It is the job of IT leaders to take an active part in preparing staffers for bimodal IT by ensuring they gain experience in a variety of areas.

What bimodal IT means for CIOs

Business need for two-speed IT, whether it is called bimodal or something else, is changing the traditional CIO role, propelling CIOs who are up to the challenge of digital transformation into a more business-centric role than perhaps ever before in the history of the job.

Conversely, some companies are finding that using IT to compete in the digital domain calls for a different kind of IT expert than the CIO who is traditionally responsible for delivering bulletproof, day-to-day IT operations.

Titles and roles such as chief digital officer and chief data officer are growing. Other enterprises have split the role, assigning day-to-day responsibilities to a deputy CIO so the CIO can focus on business transformation.

This was last updated in December 2023

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