What is Bimodal IT?

The term Bimodal IT has been Gartnerated, but what is it and why should you care? The idea is that IT should run at two speeds, one for heavier or more critical (to the business) work and one for work that is reliant on the shortest possible time to market of a solution. Or, running a portion of IT in traditional fashion and one in exploratory fashion. The typical terms used are systems of record and systems of integration. With systems of record programs, you would likely want to run in a more traditional way while systems of integration would be run in an experimental or exploratory way. Line of business (LOB) owners want new capability with speedy time to market being their number one priority. IT leadership wants to stay off the front page of the Wall Street Journal and that requires more care and a slower pace of delivery on certain systems. This has almost always been the case and we have mostly operated in a 2-speed fashion. So why the rebranding and remarketing now?

We are at a point where cloud-based services, service-oriented architecture (SOA), and agile methods have reached critical mass. This happened somewhere near 2012. Exact dates can be discussed over beers, but on the west coast, 2012 was about the time when there was enough tacit knowledge available on all three subjects to work through end-to-end problems. I am suggesting that critical mass (in this case) means there is enough skill and interest to institutionalize a SOA environment and enough staff skill to consider cloud-based solutions and agile methodologies. There’s also plenty of expertise to deliver once the decision has been made for change and many newer workforce entrants know no other way to work and develop solutions than in modern fashion. Additionally, markets are strong and the world is (mostly) feeling like we are in a recovery period that will offer at least ten years of growth. Add to that the retirement of the baby boomers and entrance of new people with new ideas and the time for change is apparent. Introduce Bimodal IT or Multimodal IT and organizational change.

Leaders rebrand when they want to shake things up and create organizational change. The change may be internal to the organization, such as when there is a management shift in the organization - leaders are replaced when change is needed so new leaders are introduced. The new leader describes the change they want to make and create an acronym for the principles they want the group to follow. That acronym gets printed, laminated and plastered everywhere. I’ve not seen many tattoos yet but suspect they are coming. The change may also come from a company wanting to create change outside of their organization. For instance, over the past few weeks you have likely heard that Google is changing their name to Alphabet. Google first floated the idea publicly about a month ago and evidently got the response they were looking for. Now, they are changing the name in earnest. Look for an onslaught of rebranding and remarketing material. What change Google is making to their business approach will be the topic of conversation my mates and I have over our beers for the next little while.

Though we have run IT thinking about two different speeds we have not had all the pieces in place to truly run at two different velocities. With the “perfect storm” described above, we now have everything in place to take advantage of running IT at (at least) two speeds. Investing in the significant organizational change that will be needed will be critical to success. Some areas that will need a makeover include budgeting, organizational structure, IT business structure, distribution of IT resources, program and portfolio management, hiring practices and internal training practices.

Most businesses operate on a yearly cycle and set 3-year strategies. There are visions that span beyond 3 years out to 20 or 25 years, but Lieutenants (owners of business capability or business lines) don’t plan or act on those visions and may or may not know about them. Most companies track spend and P&L bi-weekly, monthly or quarterly, but people goals and reviews are set yearly, budgeting and reporting are (primarily) annual events and are all pretty heavyweight efforts. For instance, most enterprises start yearly budget planning for the following year 6 months into the current year. For the heavy or mission critical systems (ERP, CRM) we will likely need to continue this practice for the foreseeable future, though we will shift from massive teams with no deliverables for a year to delivering something less in much quicker. For other programs and projects we will shift to an allowance structure where some amount of money and resource are allocated to a business area and the delivery team will be paired with the business team to manage creation and delivery with strong governance, limited oversite, and almost zero direct management.

The organization will need to change to create self-contained teams of people that can act as a small business for the business unit they support. The team members will include people that are focused on (and likely reporting into) the business unit, program and project management skills, development/test skills, security skills and IT operations skills. Each team member will be responsible for coordinating with and reporting out to the groups they represent (PM to the centralized PMO, IT Ops to that group, security person to that group). Test and delivery to IT operations will be fully automated and the team that creates also supports. Everything/everyone needed to make decisions and move forward is in the team unit so loss of productivity is minimized. For the leading companies, Holacracy will be the approach they try.

IT business structure will need to change as well. In many companies, the operational division of IT may or may not report to the CIO. Even if it does, it is that black box that does what it does and spits out operational metrics. The CIO position will need to shift to focus primarily on IT operations and will be centered in operations. The profile of a good CIO will include heavy IT operations/datacenter experience. All business processes will be based on the runtime experience and planning, program management, development, and delivery will all be runtime-centric.

Distribution of IT resources will be interesting, blurred and different everywhere you go. The old model has been to build a fiefdom and control all the resources for an area. CIOs have generally tried to do this forever and are always battling “ghost” or “shadow” IT organizations. For the old guard of CIO they will continue to fight this losing battle and will continue to be ineffective. For the new entrants into the CIO world they will understand that business success is rewarded and any indiscretion made in crossing policy lines are forgiven so long as results are delivered. Rather than building fiefdoms, the new CIO will work to distribute resources across the organization, build stronger partnerships, and get more credit for the business results other generate – a lesson that finance and marketing learned long ago.

Portfolio and program management and funding will shift as well. Organizations will prioritize budget and funding by company goals and IT costs for integration projects (LOB solutions) will mirror the percentage of funding the LOB gets. The funding will be set up as an allowance for the LOB delivery teams and they will control program and project management, as well as managing budget spend for their area. “Keep the lights on” funding will shift to asset investment and management and will be balanced with investment in buildings, HVAC systems, and other facility’s needs.

Hiring and training practices have needed to change for a long time, however, without changing them shifting to bimodal IT or to modern IT will be challenging. I recently heard at a conference someone say healthcare is the last, great area for significant change. They are wrong. Workforce development is still in the Stone Age and will need to advance a great deal to manage the organizational change needed to support the incoming workforce. The number of people available to replace retirees is lacking, and the people completing college with IT skills is even more limited. Our hiring approach needs to shift from looking for a specific skills set and experience to looking for the ability to quickly gain the skills needed to fill a position. We will have to provide internal training and mentoring, and build loyalty by continually investing in the skills of our employees and proactively rewarding them as they provide more value to the company.

It is a different world, but the business value is there.

Andy Ruth
SEI Mentor
Apprenticeship Program