Bi-modal IT: Why segmenting IT management is more important than ever

For years, business enterprises have recognised the need to take different approaches to managing IT delivery across applications, infrastructure, development and maintenance. On the one hand, teams charged with “running the business” require process discipline and strict adherence to policies and standards. On the other hand, developers focused on delivering innovative “change the business” solutions are best served by an environment that facilitates agility, speed and flexibility.

To achieve these dual objectives, many CIOs are making a concerted effort to adopt a “bi-modal” approach that applies organisational structures and commercial and contractual mechanisms to clearly delineate the roles and responsibilities of the “run-the-business” and “change-the-business” teams. A bi-modal strategy aims to optimise the business contributions of each team, ensure coordination, minimise conflict between the two teams and maintain holistic oversight of the service delivery model.

So what exactly is a “bi-modal” IT organisation? At one end of the spectrum, a “type one” IT team – the run the business group – is responsible for stability, security and up-time. Rigorous testing and scrutiny are the order of the day. The “type two” folks, by contrast, are focused on agile development, flexibility and speed. Today’s business enterprise requires both approaches to address different sets of needs. For any given organisation, the relative importance of the two groups will vary depending on business priorities; one business may require a 60/40 split in favour of type one IT, while another might need the opposite.

While the distinction between run-the-business and change-the-business IT is nothing new, effectively managing each team – as well as managing the relationship between the two teams – is becoming increasingly important. One key driver is a general raising of the bar of expectation. Consider that 20 years ago, making a phone call from a car was a dramatic breakthrough. Today, driverless cars on public roads barely raise an eyebrow. We’re becoming increasingly accustomed to innovation at a breakneck pace. More specifically, the growing ubiquity of SMAC technologies and consumer-facing digital offerings are speeding the process of analysing data and defining new business requirements, which in turn drives the ability to turn functionality around at lightning speed.

At the same time, a compelling case can be made that an effective type one IT organisation is more important than ever. Consider the digital implant that automatically adjusts an irregular heartbeat, or the car that anticipates a hazard and applies the brakes. From this perspective, having a type one IT team in place that delivers reliability and ironclad cyber security is literally a matter of life and death.

For CIOs managing a bi-modal enterprise, communicating the importance of each group’s role and contribution to the business is imperative. At a practical level, it is key to establish logical touch points between the two organisations. For example, a type two agile development initiative at some point needs to be handed over to the type one people for beta testing. Getting that timing right can optimise innovation and ensure stability – getting it wrong risks either falling behind or launching a bad application.

Recognising and responding to the different ways type one and type two organisations operate is also essential. Type one teams typically convene for monthly governance meetings. These structured, predictable and ritualistic affairs are characterised by detailed agendas and clear expectations. Type two organisations, meanwhile, are time-boxed so that projects are defined by schedule rather than functionality. Meetings are daily check-ins designed to apprise team members of progress and to identify issues – importantly, the issues are resolved outside the meeting, not during it.

Given these fundamental differences, CIOs must strike a delicate balance to keep the lines of communication open between the two teams, while not allowing the management style of one group to be applied to the other. For example, applying the rigor and discipline of a monthly governance meeting to an agile team’s daily check-in could potentially grind innovation to a halt.

Finally, managing a bi-modal environment in the context of an outsourcing relationship often requires a bi-modal approach to metrics and staffing. In a traditional managed services arrangement for type one services, the provider is responsible for outcomes around defined processes. In a type two environment, outcomes can’t be pre-defined – since the point of the team’s work is to innovate and do things differently. Moreover, personal interaction and fit are imperative in a type two team. As such, clients may need to be more directly involved in screening and interviewing type two team members than is typically the case in type one organisations.

For CIOs, managing a bi-modal IT organisation requires bringing together two very different tribes and effectively combining their respective skills and backgrounds. The challenge is to recognise the differences between the two teams and to establish boundaries, and to acknowledge the potential for strife, while at the same time realising the potential for magic to happen.

Eleanor Winn, Managing Director, Alsbridge