With heavy pressures on business to be innovative, agile, and quick-to-market, today’s CIO is as much focused on technology innovation as on installing, operating, and maintaining systems. The suggestion that IT should be two teams moving at two speeds can seem attractive. Organizations must be both stable and agile, no doubt. But the best way to achieve that balance is not splitting in two. 

In 2014, Gartner started talking about the concept of “bimodal IT.” Gartner’s research had shown that the most successful organizations have two modes of IT, with different people, processes, and tools supporting each. One mode focuses on stability – that’s Mode 1, “traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy.” The other mode focuses on agility – that’s Mode 2, “exploratory and nonlinear, emphasizing agility and speed.”

In an evolve-or-die world, bimodal IT is essential for companies to be able to respond to the threats and opportunities of the digital economy. Indeed, whether it’s enabling customer access via an app/client portal or allowing BYOD for employees, digital innovation is key for every company. But at the same time, functioning organizations need stability in business operations, not to mention areas like accounting and HR.

Bimodal IT enables the company to do both – be agile enough to exploit new business opportunities and at the same time stable enough to maintain internal systems and processes.

Not new, but increasingly essential

The ability to support existing services and respond to market opportunities has always been important for IT. But the rapid acceleration in the pace of digital change makes it imperativefor IT to be able to run at two speeds at once. As Gartner puts it, “the tension between doing things safely and scalably on the one hand, while quickly and flexibly exploring new opportunities and fending off threats on the other, has been massively amplified by the emerging digital world.”

The pressure comes in part from customers and employees who as consumers have become used to rapid technology advances from the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. We’re used to getting what we want, when we want it as consumers, and we expect to have the same when we go to work. So organizations face pressure to innovate internally from employees and externally from customers. Organizations that can’t deliver risk being outdone by competitors that can.

None of that changes the fact that IT still has to do what it has always done – maintain the ERP and CRM and all the other enterprise applications, monitor and control security incidents, keep email services up and running, ensure employees can access their work remotely, troubleshoot hardware problems, manage the network…the list is endless!

Organizations need to balance agility and stability. The risks of not getting that balance right are big. On one hand, you risk losing out to your competition because you’re not agile enough to deliver the innovation your customers and employees expect. On the other hand, you risk internal failure from not providing enough stability for internal processes.

For CIOs, it’s a double-edged sword, no doubt.

IT has to balance between stability and agility

Exactly how an organization strikes that balance depends on what stage of maturity the company is in. The goal is to balance between stability and agility, but an established company with complex systems will have a completely different path to balance than a startup will. Often, the established company needs to find ways to move faster, encourage innovation, and embrace the digital world while the young company, naturally in agile mode, needs to solidify systems and processes that add stability.

Before Aligned Data Centers, I worked at Hibu (erstwhile Yellow Book). It is certainly evolving as a digital business, but it is also a 45-year-old company with institutionalized processes, practices, and systems that are inherently very complex. We had to move toward agility to strike a balance, but we had to do so carefully, because any change we introduced had the potential to disrupt the whole system. It was essential for IT staff working on innovation and those supporting the core to work closely together to introduce innovation without destabilizing the foundation.

Now as CIO at Aligned Data Centers, I’m in a very different position. As a new data center provider with a new model and a new approach, we’re very much in agile mode. We need to remain agile to respond to our customers’ needs. But we also need foundational IT systems, processes, and technologies that are repeatable and scalable. And we need both our agile and our stable modes to be working in sync, supporting each other.

“A data center should be like a high-performing factory – churning through ever increasing volumes of data – yet at the same time like a laboratory, enabling businesses to glean valuable insights from the flood of information.”
– Gartner

Agile IT hands ideas that work over to stable IT

Gartner analyst Lydia Leong is right when she says that “agile IT doesn’t just require new technologies and new skills; it requires a different set of skills from IT professionals.” For stability – to manage existing systems, say – I need a person who’s not excited by change but rather is thrilled when the system works exactly the same way every time. For agility, I need someone very different, someone who will thrive exploring new ideas and improvising in an uncertain environment.

The process of conceiving new ideas has to be agile because the velocity of business demands that we innovate (or fail) fast. But the moment a new idea – whether it’s a new technology or a new product or a new market – works, then we want to implement it into stable, repeatable processes and systems. The common perception of lines of business is that they want IT to be agile and innovative all the time in everything. Actually, what lines of business want is IT to come up with new ideas to make the business more competitive, and yet everything else to be stable. Once a new idea works and demonstrates value to the business, lines of business tend to become very protective of it and want to keep it just the way it is – which is the right thing to do.

A friend of mine used to tell me that making money is boring, but figuring out how to make money is exciting. If you’re the kind of person who likes to be testing new ideas, then the process of trying to figure out how to make money is exciting. The ideas are flowing, you’re having a great time. But the minute you find the formula for making money, you want to solidify that formula – put systems and processes around it for stability. Then you hire people who thrive on stability to run the moneymaking systems and processes as they are, and you step aside.

The systems and processes that are developed by the “agile mode” folks and succeed will get rolled over to the “stable mode” folks. For that reason, the teams should sit next to each other and collaborate with each other. Furthermore, a bimodal mentality should be instilled throughout the organization. Operations, Finance, Sales – every business function should have people thinking about agility and people thinking about stability. Both the sides need to be synchronized and create stable progress.

As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, only agile and synchronized organizations will be able to earn disproportionate amount of wealth, and survive in the future.
Aligned Data Centers is the first pay-for-use data center provider to offer consumption-based pricing for enterprises, service providers, and governments who require greater control of their data center. As CIO, Rajendran Avadaiappan is responsible for overseeing information technology and computer systems to strategically support the company’s goals.