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Author  David Crouch – ITSM consultant, Beyond20

June 13, 2022 |

 8 min read

  • Blog
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Seven years on from Gartner’s definition of bimodal IT, how prevalent is it and has it proven itself as a concept?

In 2014, the research company called bimodal IT the practice of managing two separate but coherent styles of work: one focused on predictability in major enterprise systems (mode 1) and the other (mode 2) focused on exploration using Agile and DevOps approaches, with both playing a role in digital transformation.

Though – I believe – bimodal IT is not widespread, companies are seeing this as a way of catching up.

Former industry-leading businesses might want to change gears with digital transformation but without the skills to do so. Therefore, the bimodal approach is achieved either by outsourcing traditional IT to a third party or allowing another internal department to build systems for customer engagement.

While bimodal IT has its detractors among respected people in the field – saying that it promotes rival cultures and conflict – it’s clear that legacy IT is failing many companies.

The issues with bimodal IT

In some scenarios, what happens when working with bimodal IT is the outsourcing of traditional IT and a greater focus on high velocity IT internally. However, most companies will still need people who can run large systems of record – such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and HR – as well as people doing Agile/DevOps development – and the skills for this are different.

One well-established and industry-leading company I know of went through acquisitions which included incorporating legacy IT.

Recognizing the need for digital transformation, it outsourced this element to make progress in creating engagement systems. While it achieved progress, the downside was cultural, with little relationship between the team running transformation and internal IT.

There are, I think, three issues at the heart of the bimodal IT challenge:

  • Culture: trying to bring together people with vastly different ideas and mindsets. And recognizing that neither approach is complete in itself.
  • Governance: who is in charge of IT? Is the CIO in charge of traditional (mode 1) IT and someone else in charge of high-velocity (mode 2) IT? Does having a chief digital officer only create another silo?
  • Budget: how do you allocate funds for each mode? Does the budget for mode 2 come from another department?

Today, a lot of organizations recognize the need to understand Agile and DevOps, realizing that when IT only “runs the engine room” it is not enough. The problem is practising “fake” Agile and DevOps, i.e. using the terms but not really embracing new ways of working.

And for those doing it seriously, they rarely try to merge the two modes and outsource in a way that raises the risk level.

So, what kind of guidance can organizations consult to help manage these challenges?

ITIL 4 and bimodal IT

The emphasis of ITIL 4’s guidance is on traditional IT understanding more about business-facing skills and customer needs – and a willingness to be open to new ways of working.

For example, companies adopting high velocity IT demonstrate that they acknowledge the needs of modern business; being fast to market and exploiting velocity to change quickly without huge, upfront planning. Although some fear that high-velocity approaches sacrifice quality for speed, the ITIL 4 Specialist: High-velocity IT (HVIT) module outlines how, if you do it well, this creates higher quality: by getting closer to customers and making smaller, incremental changes to a product or service.

The HVIT course also touches more on the cultural aspects of bimodal IT: promoting zero blame and encouraging experimentation rather than punishing people for making mistakes.

Indeed, this concept should also be applied to mode 1 IT – fostering a culture of questioning, making mistakes, learning from them and conducting smaller, less risky experiments.

What ITIL 4 HVIT has done, effectively, is create a non-prescriptive set of best practices with references that people can select from.

Bimodal IT – the future?

Bimodal IT may be the transitional state from older ways to newer ways of working; after that, it’s possible that everything becomes mode 2. However, both modes can learn from each other.

The notion of working in smaller self-organizing teams is a useful concept to both modes and, certainly, decisions in mode 1 could be made lower down the organization, though there is still a place for repeatable processes and stage gate reviews.

But, for advocates of exclusively HVIT environments, the absence of “guardrails” in Agile/DevOps software development with no process or change management can lead to a lot of unnecessary failure.