Bimodal IT: The Perfect Mix for the IT Function

by | Oct 23, 2018 | Articles

The sun is dipping low over the horizon line, and there is a great eerie glow that is spreading over the Hawaiian beach. Eager to escape the over-chilled internal air-conditioning, I am sitting outside on the beach and perusing the drinks list like a well-refined connoisseur. My easy eye skips over the traditional white wines, rums and cocktails, adorned with names like “sunset”, “beach” and “lemon lady” – I am after something a little more exciting, but at the same time has the same familiar feel. Even though I am aware of the potential side-effects, my eye rests on the Vodka Red Bull.

Digital transformation has sat, for what some would say, like one of the dormant volcanoes common in Hawaii, waiting to unleash its disruptive potential. It has started to erupt, with its lava spreading through every industry and every function, including the IT function. Many companies have been caught sleeping while others have received it like the wakeup call from an early morning alarm clock, rising the challenge and responding rapidly. But regardless of whether you are a leader or laggard, dealing with digital transformation and disruption is especially challenging.

In particular, the IT function, more than any other functional unit, is the most impacted as it is at the fulcrum of disruption – digital innovation is the source of the disruption, as well as the external and internal response. The IT function also continues to face the fundamental challenge of staying relevant while also considering that digital transformation questions the traditional expectations of the IT function, as organizations expect more agility and exploration from its existing IT function.

Despite being inspired to write this article in Hawaii, where the results of this research were presented in the 50th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences, the genesis of this article arose from numerous discussions with our client network. Established firms, jealous of the speed at which firms in Silicon Valley are able to stand up product with skill and speed, are increasingly talking with Detecon Innovation Institute, which is uniquely positioned in San Francisco, about the potential of Bimodal IT to match the speed and innovativeness of their digital rivals. This article provides insights into Bimodal IT, which serves as a tool that corporations use to fast track their journey to their digital destination.

Bimodal IT Allows the IT Function to Re-organize Around its Competing and Conflicting Goals, and Deliver

In response to digital transformation, the need for higher levels of IT agility and IT exploration and the continued focus on the IT function’s traditional objectives, new forms of life for the IT function have sprouted like the plants from the volcanic ash of past volcanic eruptions around the Hawaiian hotel that I am staying at. One of these life-forms, which an ever increasing number of firms are adopting, is Bimodal IT (a term coined by Gartner [Link]), also known as “two-speed IT”. Like Vodka Red Bull, Bimodal IT consists of two components, suggesting that you should divide the IT function into two “modes” one mode focused on stability (the Vodka), the other on speed and execution (the Red Bull).

The Traditional Mode focuses on performance and typically utilizes waterfall-driven (sequential) approaches to managing IT projects and facilitates a risk averse culture. In the Agile Mode, customer experience and business outcomes are the focus, with teams often applying agile (iterative) project management methodologies (e.g., “scrum” techniques), targeting short release cycles, and working on projects with less certain outcomes. Although the focus is often on IT projects, Bimodal designs also apply to IT operations management; Bimodal IT encompasses the provision of platforms optimized for stability and resilience alongside platforms to develop and run customer-facing applications. The Bimodal IT concept is a mindset and motivation, which operate across leadership, organizational structure and culture, as well as IT development and operations. It is not just a difference in the project management methodology used (i.e., waterfall-driven vs. agile).

Note: Like consumption of Vodka Red Bull, Bimodal IT may have unintended side-effects – please seek professional advice prior to implementation. This article is based on a research study conducted in cooperation with Darmstadt University of Technology [Link:] and the University of New South Wales [Link:], where the results were presented at the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences and published in the June 2017 special issue of MIS Quarterly Executive [Link:].

Bimodal IT Comes in Various Flavors and You Should Choose the One that Best Suits Your Organization, and Change it as Necessary

Just like you can vary the amount of Vodka and Red Bull in the drink, or add some lemon slices to create a new twist, there are also many flavors of Bimodal IT. Specifically, there are four distinct flavors of Bimodal IT, and while all four flavors include the two key modes of Bimodal IT, the flavors do vary in the intensity of the structural separation between the Traditional Mode and the Agile Mode.

Organizations that are starting on their IT transformation journey typically adopt the least intense form of Bimodal IT, known as Project-by-Project Bimodal IT. For companies that are more ambitious, they often feel more comfortable introducing a clear distinction between the Traditional Mode and the Agile Mode in the IT function’s organizational structure. Other firms chose to further articulate the split by separating the Agile Mode as a separate division, which carries out its functions outside of the IT function. Organizations which have successfully implemented Bimodal IT and reaped its benefits often integrate the modes so that the IT function is one entity. In this configuration, the optimal results are achieved when the Agile Mode adopts the dominant position, creating the perfect Vodka Red Bull blend.

Taking the First Steps Towards a Bimodal IT Function Can Be Achieved Rapidly

Bimodal IT acts as a catalyst for transforming the IT function from its traditional focus to an agile and explorative engine of digital innovation. It is not an end in itself, but rather a tool used in the transformational process that the IT function undergoes as the business develops a greater focus on digital business initiatives while demanding effective digitization support from the IT function. We developed the following guidelines to assist business and IT executive to harness the potential of Bimodal IT.

1)      Form a leadership team to champion Bimodal IT.

Strong senior leadership is needed in deciding and steering toward the IT function’s destination, in implementing Bimodal IT, and in ensuring continuing alignment between the IT modes and the business. The first stage of leadership requires vision and the power to reimagine the power of Bimodal IT. In contrast, the second stage requires leadership in navigating the obstacles and challenges that arise and alternating between the different modes and flavors as required to achieve the optimal result for the organization. Finally, the role of leadership is critical in ensuring alignment between the various modes. The hierarchical positions of leadership team members may be different depending on the form of Bimodal IT selected. While both modes’ leadership remains fully within the IT function in Project-by-Project and Subdivisional Bimodal IT, Divisionally Separated Bimodal IT is characterized by Agile Mode leadership outside the IT function. However, in all three forms, leaders of both modes need to ensure sharing of information to achieve high levels of alignment between the modes and the business.

2)      Articulate your future state or destination.

The organization should decide on the final vision of the IT function before embarking on a transformation journey for the IT function. The destination for the IT function should be derived from and in alignment with the organization’s overall business strategy. To achieve this vision, business and IT leadership teams should jointly assess the advantages and disadvantages of Bimodal IT, as well as potential states beyond Bimodal IT, given the specific organizational circumstances. Before the selection of a specific flavor of Bimodal IT, the organization must especially consider the suitability of the IT function to host an environment for digital innovation. The vision should be championed by the leadership team discussed above. Most importantly, this vision acts as a motivational tool to secure important stakeholder buy-in at the various stages of the journey.

3)      Set up appropriate governance to manage the IT transformation.

While Bimodal IT might have not been formally established, it might have been already informally adopted. So it is important that some simple steps are taken early on to establish the right environment for it to thrive. Creating a clear destination, effective leadership and appropriate change management processes are important activities to complete. Effective Bimodal-suitable governance instruments include steering committees specific to each mode and employee incentives linked to mode-appropriate KPIs. During this process, the appropriate type of Bimodal IT should be selected that best suits the current IT environments and the ultimate goal and vision for the IT function, as discussed above. However, organizations should also make sure that they are agile in its implementation so that they can respond rapidly to roadblocks and challenges that the organization may face and can switch bimodal IT types as required. For example, firms that are seeking to quickly enhance their reputation within the organization will often chose the Divisionally Separated Bimodal IT and once the organization has established a reputation of flexibility and agility, they may switch to a Project-by-Project Bimodal IT. Finally, firms should monitor the maturity of their bimodal setup and consider moving into a multimodal or unimodal setup. Often the sharing of knowledge and best practices across the IT department results in the blending of the two modes and the creation of a unimodal IT function.

Bimodal IT Does Not Come Without Challenges

While the steps above provide an overview of the initial steps that an organization can take to begin implementing Bimodal IT, there are many challenges that need to be overcome in order to fully realize the value of Bimodal IT. Otherwise, like with the consumption of Vodka Red Bull, there may be unintended side-effects. Specifically, companies need to be aware of the following four challenges.

Internal Disruption. Transitioning the IT function into one which fully embraces Bimodal IT requires a level of disruption at all levels, including changes pertaining to leadership, governance, methods of working and reallocation of staffing priorities and assignments. While some IT organizations may embrace disruption as a means to achieving their digital ambitions, others may find significant disruption to be especially harmful. Thus, it is important that leaders consider the organization’s tolerance for change when selecting the form of Bimodal IT.

Cultural Divide. The implementation of Bimodal IT introduces a division between two modes of IT and there is often tension associated with the separation of the Traditional and Agile Modes as the Agile Mode focuses on allowing the team to explore, experiment and legitimizes failure. However, on the other hand, The Traditional Mode focuses on stability and traditional change management processes in a more risk averse fashion. This has the potential to create tensions between the two modes, where people associated with the Traditional Mode can feel a loss in power and attention from key business units. If this is the case, Project-by-Project Bimodal IT is often the preferred flavor to mitigate this harmful division.

Resource Management. Managing IT resources is challenging even in the traditional state of IT where competing and conflicting priorities are placed upon the IT function. The complexity of resource management issues tends to increase with the adoption of Bimodal IT. Allocating and managing IT resources requires the greatest level of focus when employing Project-by-Project Bimodal IT, where Traditional Mode and Agile Mode teams are working alongside each other and generally need to alternate between the modes depending on the project.

Intermodal Alignment. With the introduction of Bimodal IT, alignment is not only necessary between business and IT but also between the two modes of IT. There are several interfaces between the Traditional Mode and the Agile Mode, which require strategic and operational alignment. For example, Agile Mode teams may need to interface with information systems owned by a Traditional Mode team for a proof of concept or Agile Mode teams may need to initiate time-consuming change processes in order to remain compatible with future developments that are managed in Traditional Mode. Accordingly, appropriate alignment mechanisms are necessary.


Creating the Right Mix of Bimodality in Your IT Function Requires a Skilled Bartender

There are significant benefits to implementing Bimodal IT and while the initial steps enable the organization to achieve quick wins, delivering the full value of Bimodal IT requires overcoming significant organizational challenges. Like a good Vodka Red Bull requires a skilled bartender to prepare it in order to ensure the appropriate amounts of Vodka and Red Bull are mixed together and it is consumed in the right doses, a skilled and trusted advisor is often required to ensure that it is able to leverage the value of Bimodal IT by determining the right Agile/Traditional mix.

At Detecon, we provide organizations with the strategy, as well as the backbone of support, when undertaking digital transformation. We unite business and technology perspectives to provide a holistic view of the digital change journey for our clients, which often includes various forms of Bimodal IT. Detecon Innovation Institute has a history of assisting clients establishing digital innovation labs, both inside and outside the traditional IT function, effectively creating a Bimodal IT environment. Detecon Innovation Institute also assists companies embrace new methodologies (e.g., Scrum, Kanban, design thinking, lean startup) to be employed in the Agile Mode of bimodal organizations.

For further insights on this topic, we recommend reading our full article “Options for Transforming the IT function Using Bimodal IT”, published in MIS Quarterly Executive’s June 2017 special issue on digital transformation. Additionally, please contact the authors of this article, should you require any assistance with navigating your organization to its digital destination.