Peter Sondergaard, SVP & Global Head of Research, Gartner, looks at how you can address the challenge of unlocking agility and innovation without compromising continuous improvement in your core business.

To see the future of IT leadership, look at a soccer ball rather than a crystal ball. The Adidas Smart Ball is a Bluetooth Smart-connected product that enables players to see the impact and trajectory of a kick to help improve their game. It’s also an example of a traditional business staking its claim in the digital economy.

Digital business is no longer an option - it’s a mandate. The consumerisation of IT, the nexus of forces (social, mobile, cloud and information / analytics) and the internet of things have combined to create a wealth of new digital opportunities.

Companies like Adidas are creating new business models and entering new markets. In fact, Gartner surveys report that more than half of large enterprises (125,000) are launching digital business initiatives, and leading CEOs estimate that their digital revenue will increase by more than 80 per cent by 2020.

The big challenge for CIOs and IT leaders is balancing the need for rapid digital innovation - the ability to sense and act on what Gartner calls ‘business moments’ of opportunity - with the day-to-day requirements of keeping the business running and hitting regular performance goals. To respond to this overwhelming demand, organisations are increasingly exploring bimodal IT.

Unlocking agility with bimodal

Bimodal IT is about unlocking agility and innovation without compromising continuous improvement in core responsibilities. It involves managing two separate, very different modes of IT delivery and exploiting the benefits of both approaches:

  • Mode 1 is sequential, focused on stability and reliability
  • Mode 2 is exploratory, focused on agility and flexibility

Mode 1 is typically oriented toward systems of record, and Mode 2 toward systems of innovation. We frequently see Mode 2 tasked with projects focused on the customer experience.

For example, MTR Corporation, Hong Kong’s mass transit railway operator, needed a mobile alert system to notify customers when weather or emergencies disrupt service. Its head of IT created a Mode 2 team for prototyping proof-of-concept development and piloting a new product. Following that successful project, the Mode 2 team developed a number of other mobile apps.

Once the projects were ready for production, they were handed off to MTR’s experienced Mode 1 team. The Mode 2 team then continued with its laser focus on delivering more digital innovation.

Where to start: project bimodal

One common question CIOs and IT leaders ask us is how to get started with bimodal. Think about how you learned to swim. You probably didn’t just leap into the deep end of the pool and execute an amazing breaststroke; you built that skill in increments.

Likewise, most organisations that succeed with bimodal (like MTR) do so by starting small, with a select project or projects in Mode 2. We call this initial stage project bimodal.

As mentioned, Mode 2 projects are often customer-focused. Some rules of thumb for early projects should be to have a confined scope and a business partner’s support and to not significantly impact legacy systems. Just keep in mind that with bimodal, it’s OK to fail - but fail fast, fail small and iterate in order to succeed.

IT organisations most frequently start their bimodal journeys by adopting an iterative approach to developing software. Most often, that approach is agile. However, bimodal is not synonymous with iterative application development.

CIOs who evolve and grow Mode 2 practices can rapidly expand to more complex and high-value business outcomes as experience and successfully delivered digital initiatives increase over time.

Enterprise bimodal: renovate the core

Evolving to mature, enterprise bimodal requires a digital core. Many enterprises today have old, monolithic enterprise applications in a closed business architecture, and this is where your Mode 1 teams play a critical role.

One of Mode 1 team’s responsibilities in the bimodal journey is ensuring that your enterprise is open to the outside world through digital channels, so your products and services are fully integrated with customers, business partners and vendors.

The Financial Times (FT), a global media organisation, is one example of how opening architecture to the outside world helps businesses become digital businesses. The company, originally founded as a print publication, renovated its membership platform and other enterprise platforms by developing open APIs based on service-oriented architecture.

As a result, FT’s in-house enterprise applications can interface with mobile apps developed by third parties like Google and Flipboard, making the brand’s content more accessible to customers.

Culture is key

CIOs tell us that one of the biggest roadblocks to progressing with bimodal in the enterprise is culture. IT departments have been traditionally structured around functions, IT processes, IT skills (such as infrastructure, operations and development) or business processes (such as manufacturing).

With bimodal, people should be hired, positioned and promoted based on their fundamental behavioural characteristics. For example, the employee who is personally motivated to make sure colleagues are happy by flawlessly executing against set guidelines might be ideal for Mode 1 activities. Meanwhile, a counterpart across the office who thrives on trying new things (and perhaps bending some existing rules along the way) is probably better suited to Mode 2.

Attracting, developing and retaining the right talent, particularly for Mode 2, can also be a big challenge. ‘Promoting’ a Mode 1 employee into Mode 2 could very well lead to some frustrations, as an employee not native in the Mode 2 experimental world might focus on the completeness of projects, rather than on delivering speed and ‘good enough’ results.

To build the right mix of talent on your teams, consider looking outside traditional IT roles. For example, the CIO at Luxottica Group, an eyewear company based in Italy, has had great success recruiting from other parts of the company.

Another cultural aspect of bimodal is integrating both modes into the same initial goal-setting and planning processes. In the MTR example, Mode 2 developed the proof of concept and Mode 1 handled production. Luxottica takes the more advanced approach of having the two modes integrated throughout each project, which requires a collaborative leadership culture.

When Luxottica wanted to transform its B2B portal to a more consumer-like experience (like eBay or Amazon, for example), the CIO created a project, staffed with a small team that included nontechnical employees. That team still manages the site to continually deliver on evolving needs.

What bimodal means for you

We’re in a period marked by sharp economic peaks and valleys and increased digitalisation across all industries. CIOs and IT leaders will be called upon more and more to simultaneously drive efficiencies and digital innovation.

A recent Gartner survey revealed that 45 per cent of CIOs state they currently have a second ‘fast’ mode of operation to respond to these competing demands on their organisation. By 2017, we predict that 75 per cent of IT organisations will have a bimodal capability.

We recommend CIOs and IT leaders take the initiative now to explore how bimodal can help accelerate digital transformation and use it to focus their IT organisations to drive the success of their enterprises in the future.