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Bimodal IT: A two-pronged approach to delivering innovation and maintenance

Mary K. Pratt | Sept. 22, 2015
One group is tasked with keep-the-lights-on functions, the other on business-advancing tasks. Is this new setup the answer to IT’s dual responsibilities?

Jerry Luftman, professor and managing director at the Global Institute for IT Management, says the task for IT in this era of amped-up business speed is multifaceted. "The CIO and his or her team have to ensure they have the people, resources and skills to [both] keep the ship afloat and to do the important initiatives that are being demanded of their business partners," he says.

"You've got to keep the environment running, keep the applications accessible and maintained, and come up with revenue-generating initiatives for the business," says Luftman. "You have to do it all. And if you can't do that, you won't stay on the job very long."

Tread lightly, but quickly

Robert Quarterman, vice president of infrastructure architecture and technical services at Service Benefit Plan Administrative Services Corp., is wrestling with that challenge now, figuring out how to bifurcate his IT team of 360 IT employees and 90 contractors.

Right now, the technologists on his team who are assigned innovative tasks are also expected to continue with their regular operations duties, Quarterman says. That means they're sometimes pulled off a strategic project to handle an operational issue, which impacts IT's ability to deliver projects as quickly as possible.

Robert Quarterman
Robert Quarterman

Quarterman says he plans to draw a brighter line between the two responsibilities sometime in the next 12 to 18 months. "We don't have the specifics mapped out to put an end date on it," he says, adding that leadership expects to change up teams as part of the bifurcation. He says he anticipates more innovation teams to be embedded in the business units -- something that he has already begun doing for agile projects such as those that deliver mobile applications for external customers.

But Quarterman is moving carefully down this path. "I think in the beginning there will be some tension between the two [groups], and it will have to be balanced out," he says. He and his leadership team "will have to be very good at articulating the value of each and the co-dependence of one on the other."

Nurturing both sides of the whole

In the end, dividing an IT department into two teams will eliminate inefficiencies as team members shift focus from innovation work to their daily maintenance jobs, says Quarterman. And there are opportunities for advancement and challenging roles in both groups. But making the move without thoughtful communication and attention could alienate some workers, particularly those on the operations side, he says. Their work remains essential -- after all, if the engines aren't humming along, the business can't operate, let alone focus on the next big thing.


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