However many 'modes' you choose, the IT department needs to change

The age of the “command and control” IT department is over – of that fact most experts are agreed. The balance of power in corporate IT has shifted away from the IT team – and away from their technology suppliers – to their users in the business. But plenty of IT leaders are still trying to come to terms with what that means for how best to manage and organise their team.

This week saw the Gartner Symposium in Barcelona – the analyst’s annual IT leadership shindig. At the event, Gartner experts put forward their latest research on IT management, hailing the emergence of “bimodal IT“.

The analyst firm said that IT departments need to operate in two modes – one for fast-moving, agile, digital initiatives; the other for more conventional IT, with stricter governance, systems management, change control and so forth, essentially for back-office systems. Gartner claimed that 45% of CIOs have a “fast mode of operation”.

Not every expert is so convinced. Simon Wardley, who works with multinational companies and with the Government Digital Service (GDS) on techniques such as mapping and strategic gameplay, ridiculed Gartner’s research. Wardley is a highly respected adviser to CIOs – and to declare an interest, someone whose opinions and expertise I really respect.

Wardley proposes a three-way model for IT – what he calls pioneers, settlers, and town planners. He suggests there needs to be a middle stage that takes all the agile, digital stuff, and evolves it through to become business as usual, managing the culture and process changes that often implies.

His theory makes a lot of sense – how many times have we seen great new corporate IT innovations that simply fail to take hold because the business is not ready to take advantage of them? In government IT particularly, this was a key cause of failure in many big technology programmes in the past. You need that expertise in taking the new, and turning it into the everyday.

In Gartner’s defence, Computer Weekly has talked to numerous CIOs who talk about “two-speed IT”. But in many cases those CIOs do have an interim stage – the settlers – between the two, even if they don’t identify it as such.

Whichever view you subscribe to, the common theme is that the IT department is rapidly changing and having to take on new ways of working, and better ways of relating to its business users.

The job descriptions in the IT team are changing too. For example, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) digital team is recruiting at the moment. Look at the job titles sought by MoJ and by GDS: content designers, product managers, user researchers, web operations, data scientists. It’s not database administrator, systems analyst, IT operations, systems engineers or support executives anymore – although those functions may still need to be fulfilled somewhere (unless all your systems run in the cloud, which is the likely future and the likely demise of many of those roles).

The structure and skills of IT departments have always evolved as technology changes, of course. But the pace of that organisational change is going to feel bewildering for many IT leaders in the next few years.

Whatever style or structure you prefer, IT leaders need to re-think the very fundamentals of their team. Those who don’t will soon find someone else doing it for them.