How IT leaders are grappling with tech change: Bi-modal and beyond

What's old is new again as IT departments try to accelerate the transition to next-gen digital in a historic tide of technology innovation in 2015. Bi-modal IT and other models seem to offer a way forward, but pitfalls abound.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

How will technology innovation best be realized in today's large enterprise? That's the question on IT leader's minds in 2015 as digital transformation moves to or near the top of the corporate priority list, according to major executive surveys by MIT and elsewhere.

The challenge of course, is that charge of any kind is notoriously hard, particularly if people are involved, as many of them invariably are in any enterprise initiative. Add technology to the mix, especially today's very complex and intertwined technology devices, platforms, stacks, and product suites, and you have a recipe for gridlock and slow adoption.

This had led to the imperative to find and adopt better models of IT. This search has recently led many organizations down numerous experimental paths, from employing today's popular agile methods, the adoption of Internet startup methods to devops, and now bi-modal and multi-modal IT.

Bi-Modal IT: Agile vs. Reliable

Recently Gartner weighed in on the subject, noting that a startling 37% of global IT has already shifted out of the CIO purview as a result, and suggested a possible route out of a seeming paradox: We require a way to change our organizations faster, adopt technology more rapidly, move to digital business models, and mature it just as quickly, before it goes out of date, yet also keep everything reliable, scalable, stable, and secure.

Gartner's solution, announced with their usual fanfare and ceremony last year: Something called bi-modal IT.

In bi-modal IT, CIOs have the option of changing the operating model of IT for a selected project or deployment. The idea is that agile, lean processes with rapid feedback loops and close integration with both customers and operations has proven effective at turning innovation into outcomes quickly, even though they also aren't necessarily as efficient, predictable, or measurable in traditional terms.

A quick examination of bi-modal IT, which you can see above, seems to make intellectual sense. The skills, inclinations, priorities, processes, tools, and technologies of highly innovative development efforts are clearly much different than their more staid counterparts to the casual observer. Mature IT solutions have been hardened, bug-fixed, made highly secure, compliant, and have detailed, linear plans for evolution and maintenance. The very same processes and constraints that a mature IT solution is under are also the same ones that make it very hard to create something new and successful.

However -- and this is the hard part -- the discipline of IT, unlike so much of what happens on the Internet or in open source software, for example, is relatively closed down and lessons learned are not often shared. Thus the state of the art isn't nearly as well known about the discipline of IT because it's done largely behind closed doors and between often highly competitive entities.

Related: The new CIO mandate

Beyond Bi-Modal IT

But bi-modal IT can be thought of a training wheels way of thinking about the very different, nearly opposite, models for IT. In fact, it turns out that to make bi-modal work, we generally need a mechanism for connecting the two modes together in a way that respects their strengths while adapting and transition one to the other. Crucially, unlike corporate IT, it's possible to look at large public software development efforts to uncover what we need to do and what will work best.

One of the better explainers of this recent evolution in IT is Simon Wardley, a well-known thinker and writer on technology, who has made a strong case recently for a more sophisticated description of the journey that IT has been made recently to a more adaptive and dynamic set of approaches. It's not so much at Gartner is wrong, but that they are still documenting for the enterprise IT world the first steps they should consider, as they move to more practical and workable models:

By 2004, in the open source world, we had learned that one size fits all didn't work. We had started to work towards the use of multiple methods. We knew agile was suitable in the early stages of evolution of an act but we also knew six sigma was better for more evolved activities. The foolhardy amongst us had started to organise by this bimodal fashion with groups such as common services or systems and development (see figure 2). Under such a model, the IT organisation is two groups and two polar opposite (usually competing) attitudes.

By this time, some of the most public, large, and sophisticated software projects in the world, which were open for all of to learn from, were encountering some hard lessons in bi-modality that IT is just now getting to fully absorb. Simon continues:

By 2005 to early 2006, many of us had learned that the jump between the novel and the industrialised was too large. We needed a third group and a different set of methods / techniques and attitudes to cope with this. Structures that took this into consideration started to appear, in some cases we formalised the "missing" group in our bimodal structures e.g. we went from development and common services to development, framework and common services. This three party system was also applicable across the entire business as a pioneer, settler and town planner structure.

This latter trifecta of models is known as tri-modal IT, and provides a crucial middle stage which is adept at taking what pioneer IT teams have created, filing off the rough edges, introducing maturity points including project and process shifts, more rigor and planning, and in general starting the adaptation to a more long-term operational model. The settlers are conversant with the ideas, process, and tools of the pioneers, and is on good terms with the town planners, who are in charge of bringing efficiencies, the so-called -ilities (reliability, scalability, etc), and economies of scale into an industrial and centrally planned transformation for the project.

Tri-modal IT: CIO's put in place pioneers, settlers, and town planners

Just as we've seen digital networks and online communities bring a revolution to communication and collaboration in the business world, the same has actually happened to the IT model itself. The living laboratory of the digital world has actually developed for us yet another set of new workable models that takes us into the next-generation of IT.

Now, is tri-modal IT the end-all be-all for IT. Not hardly, in fact, it just shows that IT itself is decentralizing as the cloud, pervasive data, connected everything, and puts technology into virtually everything that we do. The old central planning model of IT, where it is solely responsible for IT, is just plain outdated. Cell-based structures, line of business tiger teams, shadow IT, consumer & enterprise app stores, and more are putting the shaping of IT into everyone's hands, as the central IT department is ideally situated to play the town planner role, and let a much broader set of internal (and external, with increasingly broad uptake of open APIs) stakeholders pioneer and settle the technology landscape.

For CIOs, with many competing priorities in 2015, this is an uncertain new world that is potentially very hard to secure and stabilize, but with the right transformation of the fundamental operating model of IT, into an enabler and end-state host for 'finished' IT projects (until the next disruption.) It also shows a clear path to a model that can greatly speed up corporate technology metabolism -- as well as competitiveness and sustainability -- of the typical organization. That is, if we can adapt ourselves as IT leaders quickly enough.

Additional Reading:

Businesses have digitized but not transformed

CIOs make progress, but still get no respect

Boardroom priorities in 2015: Can IT deliver?

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