Research company Gartner coined the phrase two years ago but, using Google Trends as a barometer of awareness, Bimodal IT remains on the edge of corporate consciousness.
Bimodal IT refers to dual modes of developing and delivering information technology projects and services. One is “traditional, emphasizing scalability, efficiency, safety and accuracy”. The other is “nonsequential, emphasizing agility and speed”.
In somewhat more poetic language, Gartner’s managing vice president Daryl Plummer recently remarked, “IT has been like rocks in a river. In contrast, the digital world is in continuous flow.” This need to move at different speeds is what underpins the concept of Bimodal IT.
As is so often the case, a newly minted phrase simply provides fresh linguistic impetus to something that has been happening for a very long time. The world of financial services, where my professional background is rooted, has long been familiar with the phrase “Run the bank, change the bank”.
In IT terms it seeks to addresses a fundamental problem of large, amorphous and sprawling organisations where everyone is keeping busy but no one has a proper handle on what all that activity achieves. “Run the bank, change the bank” defines clear roles and responsibilities.
Those “doing run” are charged with keeping-the-lights-on-style IT – read back office and efficiency saving. The rest are “doing change”, projects more agile and experimental in nature, akin to the faster speed model in Bimodal IT.
This older concept is easily applicable to other vertical markets. How about “Run the broadcaster, change the broadcaster” for example? For most broadcast outlets risk, stability and reputation meld with innovation and competitive edge. Run and change allows these organisations to do both in parallel.
It’s worth acknowledging at this point that there is often a natural tension between run and change, especially in organisations mired in complication, where legacy systems have been patched up over many years and where run threatens to absorb all the resources that might otherwise have been channeled to change. After all, every organisation has a finite bandwidth of skilled technology practitioners.
So how do you manage the relationship between the two? The answer comes down to governance – doing the right things at the right time with the right information.
It means, firstly, establishing a set of metrics to define acceptable uptime, helpdesk responsiveness and so on. Those run metrics must be “green’ before you can embark on change. Next it is a question of mapping potential change to your risk profile. The more risk averse, the less change. The less risk averse, the more change.
The quality of governance will determine how successful you are in balancing run and change. In this scenario, efficiency gains in run activities relative to change investment becomes an essential KPI (key performance indicator) within the business.
Ultimately, it comes back to the purpose of technology within business. The purpose is to generate value and value is generated by introducing new ideas. This comes through change: in other words, new projects. That means in a world of two-speed IT you must embrace risk. Failure to do so is to misunderstand the purpose of technology.
For Gartner’s Daryl Plummer risk is a conscious leadership decision, and he’s right. “Accepting risk is okay,” he says. “Ignoring risk is tragic.”
He is a former Management Consultant, having spent five years at A. T. Kearney, advising and leading on IT Outsourcing and operational efficiency solutions across a broad range of sectors.
He is a graduate of Manchester University, Electronics and Electrical Engineering, FIET, holds a Dip. Law from City University and completed his Bar Finals in 1995. He is the former Chair of the City of London Citizen's Advice Bureau and Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.
He is married, with one son, and lives in Islington. Outside of work, his interests include music, and writing screenplays.