Friday, January 15, 2016

Why bimodal is a useful model

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You hear a lot about “bimodal” IT these days. Gartner’s generally considered to have coined that specific term but similar concepts have percolated up from a number of places. Whatever you call it, the basic idea is this:

You have Classic IT that’s about attributes like stability, robustness, cost-effectiveness, and vertical scale. These attributes come through a combination of infrastructure and carefully controlled change management processes. IT has classically operated like this and it works well. Financial trades and transfers execute with precision, reliability, speed, and accuracy. The traditional enterprise resource planning systems operate consistently and rarely have a significant failure.

By contrast, cloud-native IT emphasizes adaptability and agility. Infrastructure is software-defined and therefore programmable through APIs. Cloud-native applications running on OpenStack infrastructure are loosely-coupled and distributed. In many cases, the dominant application design paradigm will come to be microservices — reusable single-function components communicating throughlightweight interfaces.

The argument for taking an explicit bimodal approach is essentially two-fold. 

On the one hand, organizations have to embrace “go fast” cloud-native platforms and practices going forward if they’re going to be able to use IT to help strategically differentiate themselves. And they increasingly have to. Apps. Software services. Robust online customer service. The list goes on. 

On the other hand, for most organizations with existing IT investments, it’s not realistic—too expensive, too disruptive—to just call in the bulldozers and start over from scratch. Yet it’s equally impractical to just treat IT as a uniform “timid middle” based on practices and approaches too fast for traditional business systems but too slow for fast-paced, experimental innovation.

That said, the model has its critics. In my view, most of these criticisms come from misunderstanding (willfully or otherwise) what a thoughtful application of this model is really about. So I’m going to take you through some of these criticisms and explain why I think they’re off the mark. 

Bimodal IT treats traditional IT as legacy and sets it up for failure.

This critique is probably the most common one I hear and, in all fairness, it’s partly because some of the nuances of the bimodal model aren’t always obvious. Gartner, at least, has always been explicit that Mode 1 (classic) IT needs to be renovated and modernized. Here’s just one quote from CSPs' Digital Business Requires a Bimodal IT Transformation Strategy, October 2014: "Modifying the existing IT infrastructure for an effective and efficient use, while maintaining a reliable IT environment, requires CIOs to implement incremental IT modernization." 

Modernization is indeed key to make the model work. Another Gartner note DevOps is the Bimodal Bridge (April 2015) notes: "DevOps is often thought of as an approach only applicable to a Mode 2 or nonlinear style of IT behavior. Yet there are key parts or patterns of DevOps that are equally applicable to Mode 1 IT organizations that enable DevOps to be a bridge between the two IT approaches.” 

Incrementally upgrading platforms (e.g. proprietary Unix to Linux) and modernizing application development practices are essential elements of a bimodal approach.

Bimodal IT is a crutch for lazy CIOs

Related to the above, this argument goes that bimodal IT gives CIOs a license not to aggressively pursue cloud native initiatives on the grounds that they can just argue that most of their IT needs to remain in it’s go-slow form. At least, as John Willis has put it, “I think a lot of folk think that mode 1 is the wrong message… :-)” or “I think also most feel (like me) that Bi-modal is a get out of jail free card for bad process/culture…"

Those points are fair, at least up to a point. But, Dave Roberts also made some points in the discussion that largely reflect my thinking as well. He notes that “Most of it [issues with bimodal] seems predicated on piss-poor management practices, which if you have those you’re screwed anyway.” He adds “If you want to be lazy, you will find a way. But that’s true regardless of model."

At the end of the day, I think what we’re seeing to a certain degree here is a debate between pragmatists and those who place a higher priority on moving fast even if doing so breaks things. I’m inclined to align with the pragmatists while acknowledging that part of pragmatism is recognizing when circumstances require breakage over taking measured steps. To give Dave the final word: “Obviously, use the model wisely. If your market requires speed on all fronts, then you need Mode 2 everywhere."

Bimodal is too simple

This is essentially the opposite argument. Bimodal doesn’t capture the complexity of IT.

The critique may be precise. For example, Simon Wardley argues that "When it comes to organising then each component not only needs different aptitudes (e.g. engineering + design) but also different attitudes (i.e. engineering in genesis is not the same as engineering in industrialised). To solve this, you end up implementing a "trimodal" (three party) structure such as pioneers, settlers and town planners which is governed by a process of theft." 

Alternatively, some of the criticism boils down to a more generic argument that IT is complex and heterogeneous and no general model can really capture that complexity and heterogeneity so we shouldn’t even try.

The value of a bimodal model

To this last point, I say that all models simplify and abstract but they’re no less useful for that. They suggest common patterns and common approaches. They’re not (or shouldn’t be) intended as rigid prescriptive frameworks that precisely describe messy realities but they may offer insights into moving those messy realities forward in a practical way.

Is bimodal the only possible model? Of course not. I’m not going to argue that, say, Pioneers/Settlers/Town Planners isn't an equally valid framework. If that, or something else, works for you go for it! All I can say is that a lot of IT executives I speak with find the two-speed IT lens a useful one because it resonates with their experiences and their requirements. 

 Which suggests to me that it’s a useful model for many IT organizations at this point in time. Just don’t forget that it is, after all, only a model and a guide and not a detailed roadmap to be followed slavishly.

Photo by Stephen Shankland. Used with permission. 

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