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Richard McCann, MBA PhD is an author, broadcaster and writer.

Bimodal IT is the hot topic with CIOs right now. We challenged Richard McCann to separate the ‘sense’ from the ‘spin’…

CIOs need to create business operations that are both rock-solid and fluid if they want to succeed in digital business – that’s according to tech researchers Gartner, Inc.

The approach to achieve this is something Gartner has termed “bimodal” IT, where‘Mode 1’is aboutrock solid performance, predictability and safety, and‘Mode 2’ is more agile and fluid, like a start-up – valuing speed, innovation and adaptability.

But why might your business need to start behaving like a start-up for some of your IT projects?

According to Forrester’s recent Business Technographics® survey, 60 per cent of business leaders say their most important business improvement priorityis either revenue growth or improving customer experience. And IT projects focussed on these priorities are likely to benefit from Mode 2 – where agility and speed will be critical success factors for the business change – rather than rock solid performance and scalability.

Here’s why:

  • If revenue growth is a priority – chances are the business wants it now, not 12 months down the line.
  • If ‘customer experience’ is a problem due to deficient customer-facing processes – you’ll want to improve those processes fast, to stop unhappy customers defecting to your competitors, often with vocal complaints spread by social media.
  • If you’re seeking to develop innovative ways of engaging with digitally enabled customers, Mode 1 is not for you. You need an agile “Test and Learn” approach, which enables you to validate such improvement hypotheses as you go along.

Around half of CIOs already seem to be adopting Mode 2.  Arecent Gartner survey revealed that 45 percent of CIOs say they currently have a ‘fast mode’ of operation – which presumably means agile IT.  However, the same report says 82 per cent of CIOs complain that they cannot hire enough agile skilled developers, which suggests that the vast majority of organisations are hampered and may fail to address urgent and agile projects in the way that they would wish.

 “CIOs can’t transform their old IT organisation into a digital start up,”admits Peter Sondergaard, global head of research at Gartner, “but they can turn it into a bi-modal IT organisation.

“Digital start-ups sit inside your organisation, in your marketing department, in HR, in logistics and in sales,” says Mr. Sondergaard. “As IT leaders, you must design, resource and deploy for a world that’s digital first. In this new model, every business unit is a technology start-up. Now is your opportunity to create that team. Partner with the digital start-ups inside your organization and prove that you can move fast too. Embrace the outside change.”

Explosive digital demand has created a gap between what traditional IT can provide and what the enterprise wants right now. CIOs understand this. The tough bit is designing an organisation’s IT approach to the challenge with solutions that are comprehensive and coherent – but different.

While he was CIO at Starbucks, Stephen Gillett took his first step outside the traditional boundaries of IT and became an early-adopter of the bimodal approach by launching a digital ventures unit: “In addition to leveraging ongoing digital efforts, this group nurtured and executed new ideas that historically fell outside the charters of more traditional departments.”

Does Innovation = Risk?

“In digital business, you must change your relationship with risk,”says Tina Nummo, a Gartner VP. “Treat your ability to manage specific risks as a competency and capability. Accepting risk is okay; ignoring risk is tragic.”

But the so-called ‘safe’ reliance on only traditional ‘Mode 1’ is now itself a risk, points out industry analyst and author of ‘The Agile Architecture Revolution’, Jason Bloomberg:

“If the business world wasn’t in a constant state of change, then perhaps leaving slow, traditional IT to its own devices would be the low-risk option,” says Mr Bloomberg. “The business world is in a perennial state of flux, and the ever-increasing sophistication of technology is only accelerating the velocity and diversity of such change. Transformation is all around us – even in the dusty old data centres filled with ancient legacy monoliths.”

Independent shadow IT – a ‘huge unmanageable mess?’

Martin Scovell, of international low-code experts MatsSoft, says that any risks associated with Mode 2 are tiny compared to what can happen without it:

“Line of business managers are increasingly tech savvy and they have access to a wide range of cloud pay-as-you-go platforms.  If IT can’t provide solutions in the timeframe they require, clearly the CIO is going to have a governance problem, as different departments fill the vacuum in all sorts of different ways.”

Infrastructure specialist David J Cappuccio – a man with 43 years’ IT industry experience – agrees:

“Internal pressures will force the hand of the IT organisation,”he says. “Necessity will trigger risky ‘shadow IT’ solutions that cause chaos for central IT, where individuals who are were not formally IT, or even responsible for IT support, become the de facto stand-in for a formal IT process.

“The growth in shadow IT is a manifestation of users’ desire to control their technological destiny, of their growing confidence in their ability to do so and of their dissatisfaction with the IT organisation’s current methods,” explains Mr Cappuccio.“Shadow IT is the long-standing phenomenon that is currently growing at a rapid rate, whereby unofficial investment in IT occurs around the enterprise often ‘under the radar’.”

It’s not just that activities are happening outside the direct control of a formal IT organisation, adds Peter Sondergaard,“it’s that in acting independently, shadow IT often makes a huge unmanageable mess leading to integration, security and technical debt problems down the road that could impact the enterprise’s competitiveness in the near future.”

Contrast that chilling scenario with a CIO-inspired and controlled ‘Mode 2’ approach says Martin Scovell:

“The goal for many of our customers is to adopt a consistent low-code platform such as MATS, and empower line of business developers to work consistently, with no need for programming, and less reliance on centralized IT resources.  The CIO needs to put in place just enough governance so that line of business developers work safely and consistently in ways that don’t undermine the overall IT architecture.  The trick is to achieve that level of governance without stifling the creativity that agile business improvement demands.

“A ‘Test & Learn’ approach de-risks development projects and using a SaaS license model with consumption-based licensing means that it’s possible to instantiate a low-cost pilot project involving just a few developers and UAT users.  You can test a process improvement hypothesis, validate that you are on the right track, and only then scale up the deployment to many users and enterprise strength hosting.”

Using this approach has enabledNationwide to automate status updates to customers, eliminating expensive ‘chaser’ phone calls.  Nationwide COO Tony Prestedge’s Mode 2 IT team say they have achieved a combination of happier customers, improved productivity, faster turnaround – and a £6m saving!

Bimodal in Practice

How does Mode 2 integration work in practice? Someone with more experience than most is MatsSoft CTO Andy Hendry:

“Cloud or private cloud deployment allows scaling from pilot to enterprise deployment in just a few minutes.”

The other significant factor that reduces development risk is the ease with which solutions can be adapted without having to review and audit code. If you need a change to a process, just modify it visually.  Need changes to rules and automation? Just configure them.  “Our MATS Low-Code Development platform is built on the LAMP open source technology stack.  The same stack that powers the majority of the world’s websites,” explains Mr. Hendry, “This minimizes software license costs as you’re not captive to technology partners like Microsoft, Oracle or SAP. The commercial flexibility this gives us is a real boon for Mode2, enabling high speed, low cost and low risk deployments for proof of concept that can be scaled as soon as needed, without breaking stride.”

Martin Scovell

Martin Scovell

The Future

Any disruptive technology needs to get past the ‘doubter stage’, says Peter H. Diamandis, author ofBold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World:

“When a company is creating something disruptive and new, many people won’t believe it until they can hold it. Businesses likely won’t be able to keep pace with exponentials, much less disrupt markets, if they stick to an incremental approach to innovation that is siloed in many departments.”

Strategist Simon Wardley advocates a refinement of bimodal; a bridging strategy linking mode 1 (which he calls town planners) and mode 2 (which he calls pioneers) with something he describes as ‘trimodal’:

“The problem with bimodal is it lacks the middle component which performs an essential function in ensuring that work is taken from the ‘pioneers’ and turned into mature products before the ‘town planners’ can turn this into industrialised commodities or utility services. Without this middle component then, yes, you cover the two extremes (e.g. agile vs six sigma) but new things built never progress or evolve. You have nothing managing the ‘flow’ from one extreme to another.”


Traditional IT seems set to remain at the beating heart of a business, controlled by the CIO. But digital demands have created an immediate need for an additional IT solution. Without a CIO’s control that‘vacuum’ of need will be filled by dangerously uncontrolled shadow IT. But when a CIO introduces a Mode 2 response the result is a complimentary solution offering both agility and safety at low cost.

Indeed, progressive CIOs at organisations such as Barclaycard, Nationwide Building Society, RBS and Santander implemented a ‘two-team’ strategy embracingagile Low-code methods before the solution was called Bimodal!

Bimodal, therefore, doesn’t represent an entirely new concept but rather, it can be seen as an elegant umbrella to define a controlled relationship between traditional and agile Low-code IT and the manner in whichan innovative CIO might use this holistic approach to meet all the apparently conflicting IT demands of the business.

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