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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?

That's a big benefit, he says. "You don't have brain drain, you don't lose out on the knowledge piece when a project transfers from innovation to operations," Denham adds.

Moreover, the operational experience of those staffers may give them insight into how an innovation project in one area could apply to other areas within the organization. But although Geiger is too small to support a dual operation, Denham says he does like the idea that, in a bimodal IT department, the innovation side is tasked only with completing projects.

"I don't plan to completely [divide], but I plan to continue to shift people more towards operations or innovation," he says. Like others, Denham says such a shift is imperative "because the pace of business requires us to spend more time on innovation."

Jim Houghton, chief technology officer, Americas, at CSC, agrees. "I think the philosophy behind [bimodal IT] is right, but frankly I get a little concerned because [...] I have seen that taken to an extreme, and it starts to develop a culture where some employees are the innovators and the other guys are the ones down in the trenches working," he says.

"I recognize and embrace the fact that you need to have an innovation program and some people designated to try to support the program. But I would be very, very cautious about labeling someone as an innovator and someone the light keeper." (Hear more of Houghton's thoughts on innovation in this video clip, below.)

IT careers are in for a sea change

Given the commoditized nature of the operational work, many CIOs are already turning to third parties to handle a large chunk of the operational tasks, says Arjun Sethi, a partner at global consulting firm A.T. Kearney, where he leads the strategic IT Practice for the Americas.

But CIOs aren't outsourcing the whole department -- as many sought to do six to 10 years ago during the last big push for outsourcing, he says. Instead, they're outsourcing very standard parts, such as low-level programming. High-value functions are kept in-house so internal workers have the skills and organizational knowledge needed to help define the CIO's overall infrastructure strategy.

Within this emerging two-mode IT organization, some IT professionals are finding themselves locked into one group or the other. That's because IT workers typically stay where they are as they develop specialization in certain areas throughout their careers, Sethi says, progressing along their own division's path but not necessarily moving over and up on the other path.

Sethi says each avenue has its merits as well as steps to senior levels. Operational professionals can move into senior technical roles, CTO jobs and positions with hardware and software vendors. Those on the innovation side can become CIOs. "In the past, it was people from the ranks, developers, who used to grow up and become CIOs. What I see now is the business analyst, those are the folks who grow up to be CIOs. We already see that trend," Sethi says.


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