Bimodal IT: Lifesaver or disaster in the making?

It may not be a perfect model, but Gartner's bimodal IT reflects the reality of IT leaders grappling with the digital transformation of today's business environment.

If you’ve been asleep for the past five years, you might have missed the news that “software is eating the world.” This phrase, introduced in 2012 by web pioneer Marc Andreessen, is shorthand for the fact that our society is increasingly based on digital technology. 

Activities that used to be rooted in analog, physical processes are now shifting to online, digital processes. Andreessen cites Amazon, Pandora, and Skype as exemplars of the new way of delivering value.

Customers typically prefer digital experiences and increasingly reject incumbent companies that aren’t ready to engage with them that way. That presents an enormous challenge to those incumbents. How do they adapt to the digital world, and how can they change the way they create and deliver products and services? Since these products and services are IT-driven, that leads directly to their IT organizations and poses this challenge: How can incumbents (a.k.a. legacy companies) get their IT organizations to change their application lifecycle to meet the benchmark established by Amazon and other digital leaders?

Two years ago, enterprise IT groups paid close attention when Gartner said, in essence, that it couldn't be done. Instead of trying to convert their lumbering IT organizations into speedy messengers of application agility, Gartner said companies should adopt what it termed "bimodal IT," meaning twinned IT organizations: one (cleverly named Type 1) focused on maintaining legacy applications using legacy processes, and a second (named, as you might guess, Type 2) focused on next-generation applications using agile development and DevOps integration and deployment. People sometimes call Type 1 applications “systems of record,” meaning transactional systems that manage facts, and Type 2 applications “systems of engagement,” meaning interactive systems that manage relationships.

Here is a table from Gartner outlining the two modes with their characteristics:

Gartner's two modes.

From the heated pundit reactions to the bimodal IT concept, one might have thought Gartner was recommending something immoral rather than an organizational behavior strategy. Many commentators criticized Gartner for misunderstanding the new world of IT and described bimodal IT as misguided.

The specifics of bimodal IT criticism fall into three general areas:

  1. It will cause organizational strife. I discussed this nearly two years ago in a piece I wrote. Creating a Type 2 group will cause those in Type 1 to feel discredited and cause resentment. Worker bees assigned to maintaining existing systems with traditional processes will envy those working on next-generation systems of engagement—with their new-age open offices, free snack food, and trendy clothing.

  2. It ignores the fact that systems of engagement need to interact with systems of records. When I interact with a mobile application about my bank account, that app needs to communicate with the bank’s account database, which means integration with the account application.

  3. It misunderstands the truth that, in a “software is eating the world” business environment, all applications need to be agile, including “legacy” applications.

All very idealistic and high-minded. Now I’d like to share an example of the reality of most enterprise IT organizations.

While working at a cloud software company, I was asked to present at a customer’s technical retreat. Our product allowed companies to implement Type 2 applications. It provided agile development processes, seamless DevOps workflow, and microservice application support. About halfway through my presentation, one fellow in the audience put his hand up and made this statement: “My job consists of installing and configuring WebSphere. I don’t see any benefit to me with this new product and have no interest in using it. I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing, thanks.”

That’s a fundamental reality confronting senior IT leadership: One-third of your people avidly support a new, better way to do things; one-third will eventually adopt new practices with faint enthusiasm; and one-third will resist any change to the way things are.

So the question isn’t whether it would be great to drive top-to-bottom change throughout the IT organization and apply next-generation development and operations practices across the entire application portfolio. It would.

The real question is how aspiring change-makers should proceed in a world of rigid legacy applications, limited budgets, and uneven enthusiasm for new ways of doing things. Criticizing bimodal IT and describing an IT paradise that isn’t remotely achievable in the next five years isn’t helpful.

Here’s what I tell people:

  1. Find a foundation set of next-generation tools that support an agile application lifecycle. Multiple options exist, and it’s more important to find one than to find the perfect one. Don’t accept a warmed-over, obsolete, DevOps-washed product from a market-milking vendor. Insist on products that focus on next-generation application capabilities rather than settling for a little “agile fairy dust” sprinkled onto a lumbering legacy product.
  2. Identify an enthusiastic team and a pilot project, and provide the necessary money and attention to help it succeed. Pay attention to it, and make sure it’s successful. Your organization’s success—and your job security—depend on making this work.
  3. Distill a set of best practices from that pilot and create a center of excellence to serve as a resource when you extend the new process beyond the first one-third of the organization into the less-enthusiastic next third.
  4. Recognize that your legacy application portfolio is a boat anchor that will stymie your efforts at change. Create a strategy to rewrite the critical ones (including an API integration ability), migrate less critical ones to a SaaS alternative, and minimize the remaining intractable applications that can’t be addressed by the previous two steps.
  5. Be prepared for difficult organizational change. Many discussions of DevOps describe it as a culture change, overlooking the obvious fact that many people in the organization are just fine with existing culture and uninterested in changing anything. Unfortunately, the requirements of the future don’t allow organizations to carry folks who aren’t prepared for change. Change is coming. The only question is how to respond.

I wouldn’t say that bimodal IT is a perfect model. I would say that it reflects the reality that most senior IT leadership confronts as it grapples with the ongoing digitization of the business environment. If you don’t like Gartner’s recommendations, that's fine. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.