What Gartner’s Bimodal IT Model Means to Enterprise CIOs

Gartner has identified a crucial tension in the proliferating demands on IT and prescribed a model to enable IT to respond to them with what it calls bimodal IT, a combination of old-style and modern IT practices. However, setting up two organizations won’t necessarily resolve the tension, and may, in fact, exacerbate it.

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The implication of bimodal IT is that traditional IT is facing an awful future -- one where it’s consigned to keeping the lights on for legacy applications but precluded from participating in what’s viewed as critical to the future of the company at large. In this world, IT is like an animal backed into a corner with no hope of escape -- and any time an animal feels cornered it strikes back in an attempt to survive. In other words, bimodal IT sounds rather clinical and neat, but the reality is unlikely to be simple and civil.

This is one place that I believe Gartner fails to comprehend what this bimodal reality brings -- or at least prefers to not address it explicitly to avoid frightening its clients. As this bimodal reality sets in, one can expect many companies to experience huge conflict as the two camps engage in pitched battles for influence, resources, and power. The topic may be technology, but the participants are human, and the result is going to be like any other domain where people fight over limited resources.

Bimodal IT is Too Neat a Distinction

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the bimodal IT model neatly mirrors the bifurcated application types described as “systems of record” and “systems of engagement,” with Type 1 IT responsible for systems that keep track of transactions, and Type 2 responsible for externally-facing applications that interact with important constituencies.

In this formulation, each type can stick to its knitting and focus on delivering what it’s asked for. However, as I just noted, it’s likely that these two different IT groups will joust with one another for power; more importantly, despite the neat separation implied by the model, the fact is that they will need to cooperate.

For Type 2 applications to really deliver value, they need to interact with transactional systems; after all, I don’t just want to have a mobile application that lets me interact with a loan officer, I want to use it to submit my documents, track my loan progress, and even sign off on the loan. This means the Type 2 application I’m using has to integrate with a back-office Type 1 application, which, in the Gartner formulation, means the two IT organizations will need to work together.

So in addition to the conflict described in the last section, there will also be, for want of a better term, coopetition as the two groups warily collaborate, perhaps under the watchful eye of a senior executive with enough clout to force them to, if not play together nicely, at least work together sullenly.

And the border of cooperation will, one can predict, prove to be an ongoing site of conflict, as the two IT types bring their perspective to bear as to how the interaction should proceed. The Type 2 IT organization will lobby for fast changes and more functionality more quickly, while the Type 1 IT organization will focus on stability and uptime.

In conclusion, one can say that Gartner has accurately identified a crucial tension in the proliferating demands on IT, and prescribed a model to enable IT to respond to them. However, setting up two organizations won’t necessarily resolve the tension, and may, in fact, exacerbate it as the two groups vie for resources and influence.

Because we are entering a time in which IT is much more crucial to the quotidian operations of all businesses, we should expect to see more and more companies experiment with different modes of operations in an effort to respond better and faster to what the market demands. To quote Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” you should “fasten your seatbelts because it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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