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Bimodal IT is only harmful when oversimplified

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko March 1, 2016
Kurt Marko wades into the bimodal IT debate with the alternative view

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I've been asked and written about bimodal IT numerous times over the last few months and have developed a nuanced view of the concept that doesn't comport with the dire warnings summarized in an earlier diginomica analysis, Gartner's bimodal IT considered harmful.

Although the bimodal concept can be polarizing, I believe much of the blowback originates from assumptions made due to an unfortunate choice of name, reflexive distaste for analyst buzzwords and particularly the term's originator, the analyst firm so many love to hate. A common construction takes bimodal to mean bipolar, with IT segregated into two separate, but unequal entities: Mode 1 where all the stuffy IT old-timers live out their days caring for decaying databases and molding mainframes, versus Mode 2 where all the cool kids play with the latest toys and work unshackled from IT bureaucracy and processes. If that's your view, bimodal is a recipe for disaster: a warring, dysfunctional IT organization.

If one subscribes to the us-versus-them characterization, I fully agree with ActiveState's CEO cited in the earlier analysis that can expect many companies to experience huge conflict as the two camps engage in pitched battles for influence, resources, and power.

However, I contend that any IT executive that implements bimodal as a caste system with implied winners and losers misses the point and is guilty of gross mismanagement. Indeed, as I wrote last summer, requirements-based segmentation has been going on since the dawn of IT:

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. Each category has always required a different set of investment, management and governance techniques. The difference now is the pace at which new products are developed and refined and a concomitant decrease in useful half-life of mature services.

A key problem in much of the bimodal debate is that it overemphasizes the importance of Mode 2 development and minimizes the innovation, rejuvenation and reinvestment required in Mode 1 systems to maintain competitiveness in the era of digital business. As I put it here, the reductionist view of bimodal IT

...understates the amount of innovation and service improvement that needs to happen in Mode 1, business critical systems, creates a false dichotomy concerning cloud usage within IT and romanticizes the nature of Mode 2 work.

The flaw is in assuming that Mode 1 systems are on life-support instead of in need of some life-saving surgery and facelifts. Indeed, I completely subscribe to the view expressed in the previously-cited quote from analyst Jason Bloomberg,

What many organizations are finding is that for digital transformation to be successful, it must be end-to-end — with customers at one end and systems of record at the other. Traditional IT, of course, remains responsible for those systems of record.

Yet the need for IT transformation doesn't invalidate the bimodal concept, it underscores the need to do things differently since the pace of change, degree of risk and tolerance for mistakes in these Mode 1 "systems of record" cannot be so high that it jeopardizes critical business operations. These require stable, reliable, highly available applications using mature and well-tested systems, however they can't be static and moribund. A key tenet of bimodal IT is what Gartner calls renovating the core. To me, this means bolstering mission critical infrastructure and applications with new technologies like distributed, scale out, microservices-based designs, virtualized, containerized cloud stacks and use of public cloud services whether for bursting, DR or implementing new features. It's important work that requires innovative engineering and IT resources, but with deliberation, security and risk control required of mission-critical business services.

In contrast, Mode 2 is the place for IT experimentation and risk-taking. As I wrote earlier,

Mode 2 provides the structure, or lack thereof, for IT and developers to learn, inculcate and perfect the behaviors and technologies required to attack fast-changing prospects for digital business through new applications and services.

Here the emphasis is on new products and services in often dynamic markets with unknown odds of success. Mode 2 provides a structure to perfect processes in agile development, continuous delivery and rapid, data-driven customer feedback for both application developers and infrastructure architects. In this wave of IT innovation, whether you call it digital business, 3rd Platform or just today's competitive reality, both the business opportunities and customer tastes are uncertain, fickle and often fleeting. The goal in Mode 2 is to maximize IT's ability to create, adapt and react while minimizing the cost of failure.

Another way the bimodal debate sometimes mischaracterizes the desired organizational structure is by erecting walls between the two parts of IT. Again, this is understandable given the name and a superficial look at the concept, however it's a misreading of bimodal in my view. Instead, I see successful Mode 2 behaviors migrating throughout IT over time, an osmosis that brings increased dynamism and adaptability to all of IT.

My take

Perhaps Phil Wainewright is correct that enterprises trying an all-or-nothing IT transformation will find it easier than feared, but count me skeptical, particularly for large organizations with hundreds of legacy systems feeding dozens of business critical processes. To borrow my earlier metaphor, bimodal IT is old wine in new bottles, however unlike the skunk works of old, Mode 2 can't be isolated from the rest of IT, just insulated from the innovation-sapping, risk-averse bureaucracy. Done right, bimodal IT should inject fresh thinking and faster, more efficient processes without fracturing the organization into new-versus-old, us-versus-them tribes, where Mode 2 plays the role of catalyst in digital business transformation.

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