The Bimodal IT backlash: Should IT departments subscribe to the notion of a two-tier workforce?

Gartner’s Bimodal IT vision has captured the imaginations of some CIOs, but industry watchers have queried how well cultivating a two-tier IT department works in reality

For enterprise CIOs trying to balance the day-to-day maintenance of their IT equipment with the need to become more startup-like and agile in their approach to technology, Gartner’s Bimodal IT concept ticks all the right boxes.

Rather than encouraging them to rip out and replace their core, legacy systems, the Bimodal IT approach recommends setting up a Mode One team. This team will concentrate on maintaining their stability and efficiency, so the wheels of the business keep on turning.

Responsibility for carrying out the experimental and exploratory work an enterprise needs to do to keep on top of the emerging competitive threats they face, meanwhile, falls under the remit of Mode Two.

Gartner first shared details of its Bimodal IT vision in 2014, and urged CIOs to get on board with the concept if they want their digital transformation plans to come to fruition.

Wind the clock forward to 2016, and there are signs of a Bimodal backlash emerging, with rival analyst house Forrester describing the concept as “fatally flawed”. Industry watchers claim adopting the strategy has led to a “them and us” attitude pervading some enterprise IT departments.

The latter is linked to the pejorative language enterprises use to distinguish between the types of work Mode One and Mode Two do, says Kris Saxton, principle consultant at IT services provider Automation Logic.

Speaking at the DevOpsDays London conference in April 2016, Saxton says it is not uncommon to hear the terms Mode One and Mode Two substituted for “Tortoises” and “Hares” by IT departments to distinguish between the types and pace of work they do.

But that is quite mild compared with some of the more unfair and derogatory descriptors – such as “Rubbish” or “Slow” or “Sad”  – used in IT departments when referring to Mode One teams and their workers, he adds.

On the flipside, the terms used to describe Mode Two tend to be more positive in meaning, such as “Good”, “Fast” or “Happy”.

Read more about bimodal IT

For contextual purposes, it is worth nothing that Gartner is fond of using more neutral terminology, with Mode One workers often likened to marathon runners, while Mode Two are more like sprinters.

Either way, trying to differentiate between the two groups in this way can contribute towards the creation of a divide in the IT department, while also serving to undermine the important work Mode One workers do, adds Saxton.

“When I’m working in agile teams, these are people with domain knowledge about the service we’re trying to modernise, the business being serviced, organisational experience and skilled IT practitioners,” he explains.

“They might not be using the latest and greatest tools, but they know a fair amount and most of them are up for a challenge.”

The digital divide

The push for greater efficiency and business agility is driving the digital transformation efforts of most enterprises. Therefore, having two groups in the same department vying for the attention of the people controlling the company purse strings is illogical, as far as Forrester is concerned.

“At a time when businesses need to drive speed and agility, it makes no sense to have two groups competing for funding, resources, skills and the business’s attention,” the analyst house’s False Promise of Bimodal IT report states.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Simon Mingay, research vice-president at Gartner, says there are preventative steps enterprises can take to stop a digital divide occurring between the respective members of Mode One and Mode Two.

“To prevent a ‘them and us’ culture developing, it is essential you have a compelling vision, which relates to the digital transformation and the role of everybody in the organisation towards that vision,” he says.

“The belief that all the digital stuff gets down by the Mode Two team and the Mode One team just get on with the day job is fundamentally flawed and is not the situation at all.”

It is also the responsibility of the CIO to ensure the right kind of messaging is used to describe the work both groups do, and that they are both recognised and rewarded equally for their efforts.

“It should not come across that Mode Two gets to do all the funky stuff, and are gifted all the investment and development opportunities, because [the success] of Bimodal requires investment and development on both sides,” said Mingay.

“It is important that both sides have an open and transparent style of work, that they work to align priorities and that there is equity in terms of reward, recognition and development.”

Bimodal IT and innovation

Questions have also been raised about how conducive the Bimodal concept is to fostering long-term innovation in enterprises.

This point of view appears to stem from some confusion in the user and market watcher community about how much – if any – collaboration should occur between Mode One and Mode Two during projects.

Indeed, Saxton is of the view that any experimental and exploratory work Mode Two embarks on is unlikely to be of much use to the wider business, without some form of intervention from Mode One.

“Mode Two is like a vase of cut flowers – you get this initial blooming, as you’re not tied down by any of the process, the change control and the other rubbish, but eventually you die because you’re not able to innovate in the right ecosystem,” he says.

“You never really develop an application with any meaning in isolation, because your application will need to connect to other apps and services that have been around for a while, and are more likely to be in Mode One.

“Bimodal is snake oil and counterproductive, in that it fails to foster long-term innovation, which is the main thing it professes to do,” he adds.

This is a view shared by Jez Humble, deputy director of delivery architecture and infrastructure services at the US government’s General Services Administration (GSA) agency, who recently penned a blog on this subject entitled “The Flaw At The Heart of Bimodal IT”.

In the blog post, he claims enterprises that pursue a Bimodal IT strategy are putting their long-term competitiveness at risk.

This, Humble wrote, is because so much of an organisation’s IT budget remains locked up in the legacy kit Mode 1 teams are usually tasked with maintaining.

“Leaders who fail to move beyond Gartner’s advice will end up falling further behind the competition,” wrote Humble.

“They will continue to invest ever more money to maintain systems that will become increasingly complex and fragile over time, while failing to gain the expected return on investment from adopting agile methods.”

For this reason, enterprises may find following the bimodal approach significantly slows the pace of digital transformation in their organisation, Saxton told Computer Weekly in a follow-up interview.

Leaders who fail to move beyond Gartner’s advice will end up falling further behind the competition
Jez Humble, General Services Administration

“One of the reasons I don’t like Bimodal is that it entrenches the risk adverse part of your business in such a way that your IT transformation is going to take 15 to 20 years, as you’re waiting for a load of stuff to just whither on the vine, rather than actively transform it,” he said.

Mingay, however, is quick to quash this opinion, explaining that Mode One contributes more to the running of the business than life support for ailing legacy IT systems.

One of the things Mode One will be focused on is the renovation and renewal of the core and/or legacy environment because that requires huge amounts of innovation,” he explains.

“If all the organisation did was invest in Mode Two, that Mode Two capability would quickly run into a brick wall, because of the limited capabilities of the core environment.”

Interaction between the two groups is encouraged to help Mode One learn about and start utilising more DevOps-friendly and iterative processes. This is another way that a “them and us” attitude could be discouraged from developing, adds Mingay.

Differences in opinion

A common misconception about the bimodal model is that Mode One workers rely solely on the “waterfall” method of project delivery, while Mode Two employs more agile and iterative techniques,” says Mingay.

“Mode Two will always be iterative. Mode One might well be using Waterfall, but we would absolutely encourage organisations to adopt iterative approaches in Mode One as well and it can be done,” he says.

While Gartner’s bimodal IT concept might make sense for enterprise CIOs in theory, managing to practice it successfully will largely come down to how organisations choose to interpret the guidance, it seems.

Rather than striving to create a two-tiered IT structure, Saxton says enterprises should consider creating multi-discipline teams, featuring a mix of Mode One and Mode Two IT workers, as well as individuals from elsewhere in the business.

This could also help address another red flag raised by Forrester in its report. The analyst house pointed out that separating the IT department into two streams could risk alienating it further from the wider business.

 “Small, multi-disciplinary teams work because they are people-focused, and they are tackling the culture problem head on,” says Saxton.

“They also work as they’re relatively cheap, and it’s easy to start with single services and build a team around it.”

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