Bimodal IT has been a buzzword in enterprise technology since analysts at Gartner coined the term in 2014, but the strategy is not without its critics.
The term describes the approach of managing IT delivery in two separate streams; one is dedicated to the daily operations across existing systems and prioritises stability and accuracy, while the other is focused on driving innovation through experimentation and emphasises speed and agility.
"You have to pump out features really fast, but keep the main infrastructure going to pay the bills," Cloud Technology Partners EMEA MD Bernard Drost explained at a roundtable debate at Rackspace's Soho offices.
It sounds simple enough and is not as revolutionary as advertised. The tension between innovation and stability is a perennial problem that enterprises have been dividing into two strands for decades.
"Lots of people are doing this but they don’t know it," said Spencer Hudson, the global technical solutions manager of hair care company ghd.
"The classic example is any comms provider is doing bimodal, particularly if launching a new website. You have to continue selling online, and develop a new site. Normally you split into an operations team developing new features, working a lot faster. Twelve months in advance, they’re working on analysis.
"The opportunity I think people are missing out on is looking at a process. The destination of a new website is immaterial. There will always be a new website. What people aren’t doing enough of is enjoying the journey."
The journey is one of constant transition, as application lifecycles continuously shorten. The issue with bimodal as a transitional state is that permanent change can become elusive.
“Now with bimodal you have two ways of doing things," said Drost. "Is it better to keep them separate and shut one down? It can slowly die out and then you bring them over. That’s where issues occur. Change is really hard."
The reductive simplicity of a binary system has an obvious appeal but is rarely sufficient for the complex needs of a modern enterprise, as Lufthansa CIO Dr Roland Schütz told CIO UK.
"I don't like this term of two-speed approach Gartner is using because in truth you always have multi-speed," says Dr Schütz. "You are living in a complex environment, and in some areas you can move more aggressively and try out things, and in others, for example, those which are more safety-relevant, you are moving slowly."
Gartner acknowledges that an element of synchronicity between the two the modes is required. But the isolation of innovation into artificial silos could reduce integration and risk bolting new technology on top of the existing structure instead of fully integrating it.
The danger of any sweeping IT terminology is that it reduces a wide spectrum of needs and processes to a single sentence. The trend is a real one that "bimodal" inadequately describes.
"Multimodal" may make for a more accurate definition. Capgemini's cloud foundation services director Paul Pogonoski compares the approach to moving from a tightly controlled centralised regime to a federation of autonomous sections. Hudson uses the metaphor of ant's colony.
"The workers go get food, but also workers expand to new colonies," he explains. "If you don’t drive into new markets, you put your business at risk. Fail fast, drive innovation. If you don’t do that, you won’t grow."
Inseparable from the second bimodal strand are two other ubiquitous IT buzzwords: DevOps and agile. The bimodal advocates emphasise its unique ability to support multiple deployments at speed and scale.
Adapting to change
Bimodal has been criticised for an implicit disregard of traditional IT, and concerns have been expressed that the mainframe platform may struggle to attract new professionals as a result.
“I see a lot of big organisations going wrong when you have the term shadow IT, the bad way of doing bimodal IT," said Drost. "Five teams running, all doing different things, but they’re all doing it differently. You pay five times for the same thing.
"As for keeping the base stable, if you don’t get the base right, and you need to keep tinkering with the base, you take your eye off the new stuff. You're no longer on the crest of the wave.”
As a new cohort of IT professionals rises through the industry who have growth up using social media and have never owned an infrastructure and instead use third-party hosting services, adapting to the bimodal approach will become both easier and important.
The same goes for customers, who may no longer require traditional services such as in-branch tellers at high street banks. FinTech startups could be a more attractive option if established banks don’t provide the services they want.
"Businesses are fundamentally changing, and the cycles are changing," said Pogonoski. "In finance, a competitor might bring [out] a new financial product. Those established businesses then have to compete with that. If you have an established timeframe, you're six months or a year away from competing. Companies engage with customers the way the customer wants to be engaged with."
Even when the IT team gain the skills, experience, and tools to develop apps at speed, the rest of the organisation is unlikely to keep up. The legal department could be stalled by caution, and finance may struggle to respond to fluctuating usage.
"You need other parts of the organisation to help you," said Drost. "If they’re stuck in the old ways, you’ll never be able to run fast".
Their support can be gained by exposing them to the benefits of the bimodal approach. Real-time data drives better decision-making, agility brings new products to market faster, and automation tracks practice and performance to promote continuous compliance through an electronic audit trail.
Bimodal in practice
The board may also be more approving if they're shown evidence of the success of what they're asked to commit to. The approach must be focused on business outcomes rather than an underlying philosophy. The results should be rolling out technology faster for financial benefit
“I might also bimodal myself and have a small project that I just run, without waiting for permission. That’s how you have to tackle this," said Hudson. "It needs to be about results. The trick is to find methods to deliver results, and that’s what this is."
"This is about having enough rope in the organisation to try and risk new things. You need senior support to do that. You get there by running enough projects successfully to garner trust. There’s nothing more to it. You get enough trust that they allow you to go off-piste a bit. Then you go off-piste more and more, but you always deliver. Then it’s not me who has succeeded, but my manager."
Hudson advises starting small to improve the chances of big success in the future.
“It might be a Word template, or restructuring your meeting," he suggests. "Try something. The status quo is such a hard thing to push against. You have to step out of that and try something.”
No successful strategy can be reduced to a single world such as bimodal, but Gartner has correctly identified a trend that could be crucial to enterprise IT. Without the capacity to experiment, the ability to react to the market is lost.
"IT has to stop saying that it has to lock things down to have stability and control," said Pogonoski. "Things will change and you will change with it."
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