As the pace of change is getting faster in organizations, and as many transform to digital, some struggle to keep up with this. Some organisations have worked to adapt to this, and have developed different forms of operating to address the different needs of the firm. This is because while they need to move quickly for digital, many organisations are not completely digital yet, and there are still other business operations to support and projects to deliver.
One of the major challenges that organisations face as they race to compete is how to continue to support and advance both of these areas, while keeping up with or getting ahead of the competition. One thing is clear: a traditional model that moves at one speed for all technology needs is no longer enough. Organisations have been finding ways to adapt the IT model to address these difficult challenges.
Bi-modal IT Organization
The bi-modal capability is increasingly common in organizations. It was predicted by Gartner that by 2017, three quarters of organizations would have this ability. The idea of a bi-modal IT organization is one that operates using two delivery approaches, which operate at the same time as one another. One is a slower delivery for legacy and more standard IT work, and the other is a rapid development approach suited to digital innovation. This approach to IT activities is often undertaken as the organization adjusts to operating for digital. It typically sets up a digital department that takes care of all digital activities throughout the organization. The rest of the business continues working largely in the way that it was in the past.
Looking at this in greater detail, the IT approach towards digital aims to deliver market leading technology and innovative approaches. It seeks to enter new markets and to deploy digital architecture and technologies that may not have been adopted in the past. On the other hand, the needs of the legacy organization are addressed very differently. Costs are controlled and there is usually just the most basic infrastructure in place. There is little that is innovative about the technology that is used. There is support of standard services and there is strong governance in this area.
There are many advocates of this two-speed approach. Gartner is one, and McKinsey analysts have also supported it. At first glance it makes a lot of sense because it allows “business as usual” to continue in IT, while innovative new digital technologies and development are also supported. McKinsey suggest that over time the bi-modal approach is good for the IT organization as it allows adaptation to digital and the development of an architecture of IT that can support that. At the same time, it works to continue to support the existing business and its required functionality at a slower rate that better suits this aspect of the operation.
Problems with the Bi-modal Model
While the bi-modal approach is better than not adjusting for digital at all, this capability is nonetheless rather limited. Having just a fast and a slow approach to operations is insufficient, as there may be different needs that do not fit into either of these. Other specialists in this field have reported that organisations that adopt the bi-modal approach are those that have not been capable of adjusting to multiple speeds, to meet the complex needs of the organization.
Another flaw with the bi-modal approach to the IT organization is that it assumes that non-digital projects can plod along slowly. This does not reflect reality in the business environment that most organisations face. Instead, all aspects of the IT organization need to work in an agile and flexible manner to deliver the technological change that organisations need, at the pace they need them. Slow just will not cut it anymore.
A third problem is that the bi-modal model can lead to dislocation between a digital team and the rest of the business. This can negatively impact communication and team working.
The Multi-Modal or Multi-Speed IT Organization
The multi-modal or multi-speed IT organization is one that can manage different speeds to meet different organizational needs. It is more complex than a bi-modal or two-speed approach because it recognizes that there are various IT needs at different times.
While discussing these issues with CIOs in different organisations, I have had them ask me about the tri-modal model, which is one form of multi-modal or multi-speed approach. The tri-modal model is arguably better than a bi-modal approach as it recognizes that there are not just two basic speeds for IT activities and development. The tri-modal approach includes three different groups. There are the pioneers, the settlers and the town planners. The town planners are similar to the legacy support and IT operations in the bi-modal model. They keep the basic model operating as it has in the past, but they also offer service integration to external and internal teams.
The pioneers are those who are out there working on the very innovative IT change, delivering innovation and operating in an agile way. The settlers are the new component in the tri-modal model. They sit between the town planners and the pioneers and help address transitions, ensuring that new services work with the baseline architecture. This helps the business transform over time, rather than getting stuck in a bi-modal situation.
On a first look, the tri-modal model is rather attractive as the settler team will bridge the gap between the two other teams of a bi-modal organization, breaking down the barriers that might otherwise build up between the two. This could be a helpful approach for adjusting to operating in a digital world and ensuring that no part of the business gets left behind. However, organizations will need to find the model that best meets their needs, and this tri-modal approach may not work for all.
How to Implement a Multi-Modal or Multi-Speed IT Model
To put in place a multi-modal or multi-speed IT model there is a need for the business to acknowledge that IT is consumed at different speeds by different parts of the organization at different times. The IT model must transform to address this need. The architecture needs to also reflect this, so that there is sufficient support for both digital and legacy IT needs depending on consumption. To operate at multiple speeds, it is recommended to make the legacy architecture simpler.
In terms of managing projects under a multi-speed model, I recommend using the right governance depending on the speed needed. The waterfall method that was more traditionally used is good for IT development that does not need to move at high speed. On the other hand, agile approaches may be much better when new technology needs to be adopted and deployed very rapidly. Of course, IT teams need to be fully trained and adept in both types of approaches to be able to deliver these effectively.
IT teams in organisations are finding ways to adapt to the new digital world. A popular means of addressing the needs of both the existing IT infrastructure as well as the new digital architectures and technology is the bi-modal approach. Bi-modal capability offers development and support at two speeds — a faster speed to meet the needs of the fast-changing digital environment, and a slower pace that supports and adapts legacy systems, so the organisation can continue to deliver products and services as in the past.
While the bi-modal approach is popular, it is not without its faults. Some analyst say that the two-speed approach leads to communication issues in the organization, while others argue that all IT needs to be agile and flexible, leading to a more flexible tri-modal or multi-modal capability. Whichever approach the organization takes it is critical that it supports the IT needs of the organisation, allowing it to adapt to digital, quickly and effectively.