The Key Disadvantages of Bimodal IT Approach

By Mark A. Campbell

In 2014, Gartner took the cover off its new “Bimodal IT” model on an unsuspecting industry. It was new, it was simple—and it was easy to articulate. A conveyer belt to flawlessly deliver reliable, buttoned-up business platforms as well as new, skinny-jeaned hipster apps. Finally, now we can make some real progress.

So what is Bimodal IT? Gartner states:

Bimodal IT is the practice of managing two separate, coherent modes of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility. Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasizing agility and speed. Bimodal IT is the only sustainable solution for businesses in an increasingly disruptive digital world. 

But wait… this all sounds vaguely familiar. Haven’t we done this many times over in our meandering half century of IT? Why do we keep revisiting this idea and why doesn’t it work?

First things first. To give credit where it’s due, Gartner has a rather exceptional track record of recognizing, formulating and communicating trailing indicators in the IT industry. We’ve all ooo’ed and awww’ed over the latest Hype Cycle curve or searched for our favorite storage company on the latest Magic Quadrant. Gartner is very good at this kind of stuff.

But I, for one, think Bimodal IT is an impractical invention from the Gartner marketing department. Although Gartner has yet to release a documented regimen for Mode 1 or Mode 2, I would like to respectfully chip away at the three cornerstones on which Bimodal IT rests.

It’s a New Approach for Today’s Digital World: This is not new at all! The tension between agility and stability goes back to the foundational days of IT. A short walk down Memory Lane includes: “IT vs. Shadow IT”; “Dev vs. Ops”; “on-prem vs. cloud”; “native vs. Web-based”; “mainframe vs. client server”; “waterfall vs. incremental”; “batch vs. interactive”; “analog vs. digital”; and even “David vs. Goliath.” The tension between sturdy and slippery has fueled IT innovation since Herman Hollerith got his first slide rule.

Two Separate (but Equal) Modes: An astute student of IT history may point out that in the examples cited above, several require three, four or even five approaches. It wasn’t really just waterfall vs. incremental. It was waterfall vs. incremental vs. rapid prototyping vs. extreme programming vs. ad hoc. Why? Because the agility vs. stability postulate is a false dichotomy.

Since the early days of IT, there have been many axes of tension besides agility and stability–how about the old RAS model (reliability, availability and serviceability), security, affordability, scalability and all the other little “ilities.” Said another way, bimodal is too trivial–the real-world is multi-modal. You need as many solution approaches as you have business drivers. It is not as simple as an “either-or” bifurcation. As always, today’s pressing IT challenges are an “all-and” problem. It turns out that human society has developed an entire practice to balance the tradeoffs of opposing constraints and offer the best blend to solve the problem at hand–we call this arcane art “engineering.”

It’s a Sustainable Solution: Unfortunately, the Bimodal IT model does not even present a cogent long-term solution to the oversimplified agility-stability problem. Let us imagine that an enterprise actually and faithfully implemented a two-mode overhaul. What would be the logical implications? Well, four dire consequences come flying off the top of the deck:

*Artificial Silos: The first and greatest impact would be the creation of artificial silos for products, processes and people. This is the opposite direction of every IT and organizational health trend since the term “functional silo syndrome” was coined by Phil Ensor in 1988. Bimodal IT’s reliance on silos is simply muddle-headed thinking as proven out by countless studies over the past four decades.

*Mode 1 Stagnation: The bimodal approach applies a bandage over the wound in traditional platforms but does nothing to stanch the bleeding. This model institutionalizes stagnation by discouraging innovation in legacy platforms under the guise of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

*Mode 2 Rigidity: In Gartner’s words, “Mode 2 still requires a rigorous, disciplined approach.” So the bimodal model prescribes a definite, predictable and logical process flow around what is, at its core, an ill-defined, unpredictable and sometimes illogical stream of experimentation and discovery. Kind of like “A Paint by Numbers Guide to Jackson Pollack.”

*Unsustainable “Slender Lock-in”: New and emerging applications are wedged into one of two narrow modes and forever locked into a modus operandi that will undoubtedly prove to be ill-suited in the long-term. Bimodal IT closes the avenues for evolving Mode 1 legacy applications into more nimble Mode 2 offerings or, conversely hardening agile prototypes into stable back-end offerings.

This type of oversimplified and stilted approach has been failing to save innovation-hostile companies since Fred Brooks wrote about the infamous Silver Bullet. And this model will also fade into obscurity.

It’s easy to poke holes in others’ ideas, so what do I offer as a better alternative? Well, what has succeeded without failure throughout IT history still works today; namely, nimble companies that put true innovation at the core of their business using whatever mode of creativity is needed to exceed their customers’ needs. Today we are surrounded by great examples of companies that are reshaping IT by delivering agility and stability like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, or LinkedIn (any guesses how many of these use Bimodal IT?). But those examples are all newbies! What about more established companies? Well, simply put, “get hip” or go the way of other established companies like Compaq, E.F. Hutton, Wang, Blockbuster or PanAm.

If you find yourself in a company that can’t find its wallet pocket with both hands, then please adopt Bimodal IT with all the gusto your bookshelves of approved corporate process will allow and “Buy Mo’ Dull IT”–your competition will thank you.

Mark A. Campbell is director of Innovation Research at Trace3.

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