Enterprise IT Crosses the Chasm

Author Geoffrey Moore's book 'Crossing the Chasm' has been influential in the IT industry for more than two decades now. The theory was a good model for how most enterprise IT shops used to work. However, now enterprise IT is crossing the chasm and heading in the direction towards innovation.

One of the most -- perhaps the most -- influential books in Silicon Valley over the past two decades has been "Crossing the Chasm" by Geoffrey Moore. In it he posits the existence of a technology adoption bell curve (Figure 1) -- starting with innovators, who eagerly grasp new technologies to gain competitive advantage, through to laggards who typically wait for technology to be established as a service, thereby requiring no internal technical expertise.

figure 1 crossing the chasm

Figure 1

The catch is that between the technology enthusiast (perhaps 15 percent of the market) and the pragmatist phases (at 85 percent, the vast majority of a market) looms the chasm. The chasm is caused by the fact that, while enthusiast buyers are willing to work with unfinished, unpolished products, pragmatists require vendors to deliver what Moore terms "whole" products -- easy to use, accompanied by training and large service partners, with local company presence for personal interaction -- in other words, convenient to adopt and use. If whole products are not available, new technologies cannot "cross the chasm" and are stranded in a small subset of the overall market for a given technology.

It’s difficult to overstate this book's influence in the startup world. Countless discussions within early stage companies have focused on how to cross the chasm -- with enormous pressure on every participant to help figure out how to access the lucrative mainstream IT market. Without a strategy to cross the chasm, an early stage company is doomed to a niche opportunity.

Moreover, Moore's theory was a good model for how most enterprise IT shops worked. They slowly adopted new technologies, typically waiting for a winner to emerge in a given market segment. These organizations, in effect, stood with folded arms, impassive to the entreaties of startups asking them to give their products a try -- patiently waiting for one vendor to be ready to deliver the technology in the "enterprise" form.

Today, however, the crossing the chasm model is breaking down completely -- so much so that enterprise IT itself is crossing the chasm and heading in the direction towards innovation. This behavioral change is massively disruptive to the established order and accounts for much of the confusion and angst we see in the technology industry today. It's no understatement that there is a pitched battle going on for the very definition of enterprise IT, with one side represented by a coalition of incumbent vendors and mid-career IT personnel and the other by startups, open source companies, and IT personnel focused on leveraging new technologies.

Gartner characterizes this state of affairs as "bimodal IT" -- an uneasy melange of two very different approaches to IT.

Bimodal IT: Legacy IT and Innovative IT

The first approach: Legacy IT focuses on traditional proprietary applications, functionality and processes delivering largely standardized functionality (think ERP) from legacy vendors (think Oracle). This is the world of large, infrequently updated software packages, managed via deliberate, lengthy manual processes (think ITIL), operated in a largely static infrastructure financed via large capital investment, and often outsourced to a "your mess for less" provider.

The second approach: Innovative IT focuses on individualized functionality specific to the enterprise, commonly self-assembled from open source software (think Mongo) and products from early stage vendors (think Urban Airship). Change is frequent and managed via automated processes (think DevOps) and operated in dynamic, elastic infrastructures priced by resource use in an environment managed by a cloud computing provider (think Amazon Web Services).

Bimodal IT: Two Completely Different Worldviews

In a presentation by Gartner analyst Lydia Leong I attended at the AWS Reinvent conference, she walked through the characteristics of bimodal IT. The message I took away was that these are two completely different ways of looking at the world and, even if they live in the same organization, they are as different as chalk and cheese. Crucially, the two visions of how IT operates and what it needs to deliver are so different that the solutions of one group are considered completely inadequate by the other. Leong gave the example of private clouds -- built by traditional IT, they are viewed as uninteresting by innovative IT and typically ignored in favor of public solutions.

The mutual incomprehension of these two worldviews was on display in a Twitter exchange I had while attending Reinvent. Perusing the agenda, I noted that Coca-Cola was speaking at two sessions, and so tweeted (rather snarkily, I must admit) "Coca-Cola has two sessions at Reinvent. More evidence enterprises won't use AWS." I wrote this tweet (you can see it quoted in the middle tweet in Figure 2) because of the very common assertion I hear that "enterprises don't/won't use AWS," and this seemed very clear evidence of what I see all the time -- mainstream enterprises are adopting AWS and its "commodity" counterparts Azure and Google.

figure 2 cloud computing 1 blurred

Figure 2

However, almost immediately, worldview one was displayed by a person (blurred in the image to avoid personalizing this discussion) who responded "What is Coke doing? Actually 'enterprise' type stuff, or basically more external facing?" The exchange continued (see Figure 3), with me responding that "external facing" is enterprise IT, and the other person asserting that enterprise IT is when "back office is there" and that, even if some companies are doing enterprise IT in the cloud, it's not "any company of size."

figure 3 cloud computing 2 blurred

Figure 3

The technical term for this attitude is "cognitive dissonance" -- refusing to allow any facts to interfere with a perceived worldview. Coca-Cola, according to MarketWatch, did $47 billion in revenue last year. Not as large as, say, General Motors, but it certainly qualifies as a large enterprise in my book. This adamant, persistently negative viewpoint regarding public cloud computing makes it clear why bimodal IT is on the rise, and why approach two is driven not by traditional IT, but by corporate executive leadership and a new breed of IT executives attuned to the need to transform enterprise IT.

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