Backlash against a bimodal IT strategy

A new report from Forrester cautions CIOs against bimodal IT, contending the two-tiered approach could create more problems than it solves.

CIO experts at the IT consultancy Gartner have touted the benefits of an IT organizational approach it calls bimodal IT. Put simply, CIOs using a bimodal IT strategy break IT tasks into two categories or speeds -- those centered on stability, namely infrastructure, and those centered on agility, namely customer-facing apps. The two-tiered approach, in Gartner's view, will help IT organizations make the shift to digital business.

But a new report from Forrester Research Inc. cautions CIOs against jumping on the bimodal IT bandwagon. While the strategy may make the hard and painful transition to digital seem easier in the short-term, bimodal IT is not a viable long-term strategy, according to the authors of The False Promise of Bimodal IT.

Instead, a bimodal IT strategy creates more complexity at a time when CIOs have to simplify, adds a new silo at a time when CIOs have to break down walls, makes technology a priority when customer expectations should be the focus, and gives CIOs the false impression that back-end systems can be left alone rather than streamlined to meet the demands of the fast-paced digital business, according to the report.

Forrester: Bimodal postpones the inevitable

The big problem with a bimodal IT strategy is that it doesn't go far enough, according to the authors. Rather than face digital business head on, bimodal IT is a more staggered introduction, giving CIOs a chance to continue clinging to the security and the stability of tradition rather than fully accept the unpredictability and even the riskiness that come with going fast.

"Yes, it's a big transition, but if you only do it partway, you're going to make it so much harder on yourself," Sharyn Leaver, Forrester analyst and an author of the report, said during a recent webinar.

One of the consequences of going digital "partway" is that it introduces complexity. Divvying up IT tasks can result in two separate technology stacks and two separate teams that develop different value systems, different cultures and are evaluated on different metrics -- all of which CIOs will eventually have to untangle if they want to fully align with the business and move at a faster pace, according to Leaver.

Plus, if the business values one team over another, the segregation between the stable and the agile teams could create competition and even result in loss of talent. Carlton Doty, a Forrester analyst, observed as much while working in IT for a company in the bubble of the late '90s and early 2000s. Half the team was dedicated to a transformational back-end project, while the other half kept the lights on. "It just didn't work," he said during the webinar. "And it resulted in a rise in attrition rates and lower morale."

Not only can a bimodal IT strategy introduce unintentional silos, but it also fails to shine a light on the heavy lifting CIOs will need to do if they really want to operate at the speed of the market, namely transforming back-end systems.

"You can only put so much digital lipstick on a pig before you gotta go at changing the core operational processes," said John McCarthy, Forrester vice president and lead author of the report. He pointed to Delta Air Lines as an example. The airline company spent years building customer-facing digital applications, but its customer experience metrics didn't improve until Delta reworked its operational systems around aircraft maintenance and crew scheduling, he said.

It's another way of saying customer experience is the yin to operational excellence's yang, McCarthy said. "If you've got a legacy anchor, creating a bimodal strategy that says, 'We don't have to fix the back end' just sets yourself up for failure 18 to 24 months down the road," he said. "Because we know there's fundamental business transformation that needs to take place and that says the back end is going to have to shift."

Leaver agrees. The only time she'd recommend a bimodal IT strategy is if CIOs have yet to adopt Agile and if their legacy systems are so entrenched that thinking big picture is impossible. In those cases, bimodal IT can help CIOs carve out a few projects, rack up some quick wins and gain momentum. "The key is that this has to be very short term," she said. "As soon as that distinction between the two organizations gets engrained and you end up with two operating speeds and different metrics, you're just making the transition longer and harder," she said.  

So what's a CIO to do?

To go fast, CIOs need to think holistically, Leaver said. They need to think about how their organizations are structured. They need to evaluate the talent they have and assess if that talent is up to the task and has the technology background necessary to go fast. She also urged CIOs to make governance processes "more agile, more cross functional," as a means to go faster.

IT organizations, whether bimodal or traditional, give a lot of lip service to supporting business goals. But to live up to the mantra of "No IT for IT's sake," Leaver said CIOs will need to seriously rethink IT  metrics that support traditional values such as uptime and resiliency to the exclusion of business outcomes.

One trend that appears to be gaining in popularity is tying IT to net promoter scores (NPS), a business metric used to gauge customer loyalty for a company's brand. However, Leaver argues NPS doesn't quite cut it because the scores use factors that are outside of IT's control. Instead, she suggested CIOs consider metrics within IT's direct control that tie back to external customer satisfaction. For CIOs and their IT departments, the shift from personal IT metrics to bigger picture business metrics is "a big sea-change, but it's an important one," she said.

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