These are challenging times for Chief Information Officers (CIOs) who increasingly have to walk a narrowing fine line between innovating and keeping the lights on.

In response to this dilemma, a growing number of IT organizations are forking into two or even more groups, with some focusing on maintaining the traditional IT system while others target new technologies to disrupt the marketplace. This is sometimes  known as “ambidextrous” or “bimodal” IT.

The CIO is expected to juggle everything, and it’s a constant balancing act. How many resources should be devoted to maintaining and improving the existing product lines, vs. how many should be devoted to the products of the future that help the company stay relevant in a changing marketplace?

“One of the biggest challenges is to demonstrate the value of the existing IT ecosystem against investing in innovations and new technology,” Mike Faiers, director of IT and eBusiness at BSH Home Appliances, tells Stuart Sumner in Computing UK. “Increasingly business wants to innovate, to demonstrate they can bring to market new solutions and ideas, which all take time, focus and resource. To counter this traditional IT architecture, network components and user devices are being squeezed to free up capacity and resource to invest in innovation. This is not an easy balance to get right.”

Going Bimodal? Build a Balanced Approach

As with almost anything in business, the first thing to get a handle on is the budget. Managing the budget is required, writes Stephen Bigelow in TechTarget, because organizations that implement bimodal IT may require more staff and equipment for the separate development tracks. “There are simply not enough people with the right skills to support the two distinct IT delivery groups in a bimodal IT model. The company must increase staff count for either mode — or for both,” he writes.

Having multiple development tracks results in multiple career tracks as well, Bigelow adds. “One of the principal complaints about bimodal IT is the intentional separation between legacy and innovative systems leaves mode 1 staff just keeping the lights on, while mode 2 staff gets to work with the interesting stuff that adds more value to the business. Ask any IT professional which team they’d rather be on.”

That said, there are people who prefer working on maintaining older systems. Make sure to recognize them. And for anyone who works on the legacy systems, make sure they’re as eligible for promotions, training, and recognition as the people working on the newer systems. After all, they’re your bread and butter.

The Argument Against Bimodal IT

In some organizations, the notion of bimodal IT is getting some pushback, with some experts saying that having to choose between reliability and agility is a false dichotomy. “[The bimodal] model rests on a false assumption that is still pervasive in our industry: that we must trade off responsiveness against reliability,” writes Jez Humble in the Continuous Delivery blog. “The conventional wisdom is that if we make changes to our products and services faster and more frequently, we will reduce their stability, increase our costs, and compromise on quality. This assumption is wrong,” he continues, citing companies such as Google and Amazon as examples of companies that are constantly changing. Amazon, in particular, has a reputation for constantly doing A/B testing to find the most effective way of presenting information.

While Humble agrees that implementing a bimodal approach can be useful for companies just starting to look at digital transformation, the transition should be measured in months, not years, he writes. “The [bimodal] model is overly reductionist,” he writes. “We’ve moved from a one-size-fits-all model to a two-sizes-fit-all model. This is progress of a very crude sort for organizations stuck in the 90s, but the leading digital enterprises are making much more fine-grained risk management decisions at the level of individual products and services. Market leaders such as Google and Amazon are managing each of their thousands of services according to its unique risk profile, with continuous delivery as the default approach.”

Rob England of the IT Skeptic blog suggests a different kind of bimodal model, which he calls Standard+Case – using a standard when it’s a common development situation, but being capable of defining a special case when more agility is required. “Standard+Case is intended for response management: responding to situations,” he writes. “Some teams will work within a standard lifecycle and other teams will be empowered to create their own (in collaboration with necessary experts and within the bounds of change and risk policies).If we recognize their requirement, we can send them to a known, predefined, standardized lifecycle. If we don’t recognize their requirement, if we don’t already have a standardized response for them, then we will treat it as a new case, and assign an experienced person to work out a custom lifecycle for them.”

What it all means: A 3-part strategy for executives

Classic books such as The Innovator’s Dilemma have made it clear that companies need to innovate or their competition will do it for them. At the same time, the company needs to maintain its existing line of products and continue to service its current customers. How to find a balance? CIOs can help their companies prepare for and leverage this dilemma with a 3-part strategy:

1.       If you decide to implement a form of bimodal IT, be prepared that it’s going to cost more. While you may not need two full IT teams, some duplication is going to be required. Trying to get two paths done with just one team simply guarantees that neither will be done well.

2.       Make sure that people working on both teams are adequately recognized and compensated, or the staffers who work on the less-recognized team (usually the legacy products, but not always) will lose motivation.

3.       Even if you don’t implement a full bimodal IT system, it’s important to dedicate some resources to both maintaining the old systems and looking to the future. Make sure there are people and processes available to respond with agility to sudden changes in technology or business requirements.

Whichever tactic your company chooses, it’s important to keep business needs in mind, Nick Folkes, CIO at security firm G4S, tells Sumner. “”It’s not just worrying about budgets and keeping lights on, but adding value to the firm,” Folkes says. “CIOs today must partner with the business to understand how it operates, how it can be made more efficient, and do so in a way that engages and empowers each of the business leaders to grow their businesses. Maybe 10 years ago you could have produced a business strategy that didn’t have major part for IT. I don’t think that’s possible now.”


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